No need to lie to kids about death, God

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By Tom Krattenmaker,
NW author, contributor for USA Today and the Hummanist,

The Wall Street Journal opinion page has advice for nontheist parents: tell your kids God and heaven are real even if you don’t believe it.

Writing on December 5, therapist Erica Komisar notes that she’s often asked by parents, “How do I talk to my child about death if I don’t believe in God or heaven?” Komisar says she has a simple answer for them: “Lie.”

“The idea that you simply die and turn to dust may work for some adults,” Komisar writes, “but it doesn’t help children. Belief in heaven helps them grapple with this tremendous and incomprehensible loss.”

Unfortunately, this harmful nonsense is no isolated case. In fact, as one of the nation’s largest and most influential newspapers was featuring Komisar’s irresponsible advice, rhetoric continued flying across the culture blaming the country’s growing secularity for moral decay, nihilism, and despair.

In now-infamous remarks at Notre Dame earlier this fall—described by legal affairs writer Jeffrey Toobin as the worst speech ever given by someone in his lofty position—Attorney General William Barr charged that “the campaign to destroy the traditional moral order has … brought with it immense suffering and misery. And yet the forces of secularism, ignoring these tragic results, press on with even greater militancy.”

There you have it, secular America: godlessness is destroying all that is good and moral. Not to mention damaging our children.

All this would be cause for great alarm and tidal waves of parental guilt if any of it were valid. It’s not. This we know from sociological research, from our own and other people’s experiences, and from simple logic. The growing ranks of the nonreligious are living ethical and meaningful lives, by and large, and doing an admirable job of raising their children despite hazards, from toxic Internet culture to the anxiety over climate change.

In her Journal article, Komisar cites a 2018 Harvard study finding that youths growing up in religious or spiritual families enjoy better outcomes than those from nonreligious families: greater mental health, higher rates of volunteering, and lower likelihood of drug use and early sexual activity, among other metrics.

It’s almost enough to make a nontheist parent rush out and find a church or synagogue to join. Until you realize that it’s not the theism that produces better outcomes. It’s the communal aspect of religion, which can be, should be—and frequently is—replicated in secular ways.

Wendy Thomas Russell, a journalist and author who specializes in parenting issues, told me in an email exchange that she finds Komisar’s “lie to your children” advice as ill-informed as it is ethically challenged.

“Dig deeper into such studies and you will find that the underlying reason for the boosts in well-being are often linked to the social aspect of religious services—not the belief systems,” says Russell, author of the book Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Kids About Religion When You’re Not Religious. “Having a community of like-minded people who care about you and look out for you is truly a life-enhancer for anyone, young or old.”

And what of lying to one’s children to spare them the discomfort of knowing they will die one day?

“I’m not suggesting that some people don’t find comfort in their religious beliefs,” Russell told me.

But that alone does not justify lying to children. Children are people. They deserve respect. And contrary to popular belief, the ethic of reciprocity still applies to them. If I don’t want my child to lie to me about tough subjects, then I can’t lie to her about tough subjects. …When lying becomes an important part of child-rearing, something is seriously amiss.

Indeed, there are ways to help children face their mortality without dooming them to nihilism and despair. As a small boy, I cried when I learned that I, like everyone, would die. I don’t recall receiving any comfort from notions of heaven (even though my family was religious-ish). But talking with my mother helped me realize that death was probably so far off that it was almost as if I would “live forever.” I stopped dwelling on it. Most kids do.

Although secular parents can’t comfort their kids with talk of God and heaven—at least not with straight faces and ethics intact—there is much they can give them, Russell points out. They can give them children’s literature that explains death in soft, warm terms without invoking religion. They can give them a basic scientific understanding of what it means to die and be dead.

“We can talk about how being dead is not painful,” Russell says. “People who die don’t get hungry or scared. These are things that are important for small children to know.”

We can help kids understand the very real ways in which our loved ones—and we ourselves—live on after death: through cherished memories, through the continuation of the projects to which we contributed, to the advancement of principles and values we lived out and promoted.

Secular parents can fill their kids’ lives with love and learning and the kinds of communal experiences that yield the positive aspects of religion without the theistic trappings: through clubs and teams, through meaningful family rituals and shared experiences.

A heads-up for Erica Komisar and the Wall Street Journal: secular parents aren’t condemned to an impossible choice between lying about God or telling their kids they’re “going to die and turn to dust,” as claimed by the Journal headline. We don’t have to choose between theism and nihilism. Not for our children. Not for ourselves.