Children and Skepticism

Recently I’ve had a lot of kids talk to me about heaven or “the spirit world”. I work with kids right now, and one little girl told me while we were reading “My daddy be in heaven”. Both an extremely sad statement, and also one that as an atheist I’m at a loss to respond to. My little cousin also told me that when her grandpa was dying he was “half in the spirit world, half in the real world”. Apparently that was how her mother had described Alzheimer’s or something similar. I have been struggling with the appropriate response to these situations.

When adults bring up the question of heaven or an afterlife, it is one thing to try to debate them, as they are old enough to have come to their own conclusions about things. However most children simply repeat what their parents have said, and undermining parental authority is not something I have any desire to do. So how to introduce new ideas into a child’s world without undermining the parents? And is religion, particularly when it’s tinged with questions about death, really the most appropriate place to try to introduce a child to a new way of thinking? I do think that it’s important to be honest with children, so when children have asked me whether I believe in God I tell them no. displaying different responses to questions of spirituality is important to illustrate that there are many options available. However when it comes to questions that involve grief and loss, things that a family needs to come together to deal with, does it do more harm than good to tell a child that their parent might be wrong?

I think in the case of the afterlife, it may be going too far to ask a child to question their parents while also thinking about death. Telling a child that grandpa or grandma is gone forever and never coming back, not in any afterlife, could easily be too much for them to deal with. And as many children haven’t developed the critical thinking skills to question religion or God yet, it doesn’t do much good to terrorize them when they’ve lost a loved one. I’m still trying to sort out what the best response is in these situations, but the best I can find so far is to simply express sadness at their loss. I don’t know if it’s ever appropriate to undermine a parent, or tell a child that their parent is just straight out wrong or lying. How do other people approach issues of religion when talking to someone else’s child? How do you respect the beliefs and parenting approaches of someone you vehemently disagree with? Family solidarity is extremely important, but it certainly doesn’t trump all things. Where do you strike the balance?

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at


  1. August 17, 2012 at 8:50 am —

    Maybe there’s a study or a book on this, on how you can help kids to better cope with loss, a book that says if telling them that their loved ones are up there in the sky with the guy with old guy with the beard waiting for them is a good idea. Anyway, i doubt that you can tell a kid that his parents are wrong without also taking the chance of making the parents very angry.

    I think that the only thing that you can do is just try to give them the tools to start questioning things by themselves, the bases so that in the future they can hopefully start thinking critically and reject the fairytales that they’re told on their own.

  2. August 17, 2012 at 4:54 pm —

    I don’t volunteer anything in these situations. I will respond with something like, “I bet you really miss your daddy, huh?” or questions about the person’s life, like, “What do you miss most?” or “What was your favorite thing about your grandpa?” Even outside death-related issues, with religion and kids, I don’t volunteer anything to do with their parents being wrong. I really think that’s counterproductive, and for me, it would be hypocritical because I would be livid if others did that to my kids regarding our atheism (and by “our,” I mean mine and my husband’s because the kids are too young to have decided anything).

    If asked, though, like you, I’m honest. I also try to have analogies or something similar to explain my thinking (in part because I’m always trying to think of having to explain things to my own kids). So, for example, in answer to the question about where we go when we die if that’s it, if there’s no soul or afterlife, one of my favorite analogies is that life is like a symphony. Death is simply when the music stops. The music doesn’t have to go anywhere, and neither do we. This isn’t my analogy and I hate that I can’t remember who first said it. I heard it on a podcast about 5 years ago. I’ll see if I can’t dig it up.

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