Here’s a little piece that talks about Atheism 3.0. Presumably, Atheism 1.0 was the original atheism, 2.0 was the New Atheism of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennet (“we hate all theists”, or so it goes), and 3.0 is “We hate all theists, but religion might not be so bad”. I’m extrapolating here, but I surmise that there are some people who don’t believe in gods, or the supernatural, or are agnostic on the question of divinity (they live in Missouri, the Show Me state), but feel that religion is a positive force in society, and hence has qualities that are worth keeping.
“I don’t know if anybody is going to be able to convince me that God exists,” Sheiman said in an interview, “but they can convince me that religion has intrinsic value.”
I almost fell prey to this thinking myself the other morning. There was a news story on the Today show about a little boy who contracted a rare brain tumor when he was 11, and succumbed to the cancer about 10 months later. Clear and convincing evidence of an omni-benevolent god’s non-existence, but that’s not my point. His mother was interviewed, and at some point, she wistfully related a story about her son before he died, something to the effect that “He looked up and pointed to the sky, and said ‘soon everybody there will know me'”.
As one might expect, that quote brought a tear to my eye, having children of my own. I thought how nice it was for that boy to find some solace in his beliefs that made his terrible disease, one without cure, more bearable to accept. He actually believed that he wasn’t going to completely die, just leave this existence for another one, and it made the horror of his situation more palatable to both himself and his parents.
So I thought to myself “What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with him believing in something for which there is absolutely no evidence, if it makes the rest of his short life, and his impending death, easier to live with.” I began to wonder whether there was some value in religion after all, even if its value meant deluding little children, who don’t have the adult capacity of knowing or comprehending the reality around them. As compassionate, empathetic humans, i.e. as parents, it’s natural to want to see our children shake off suffering. We try to cushion the blow as much as possible, rationalizing that they will figure it out, and understand it more, when they become adults, as we did.
Unfortunatley, this child wasn’t given that opportunity.
It’s not like there’s no precedent for it. We create the fictional character of Santa Claus to bring joy, and mystery, into our children’s lives, and only destroy the fantasy when they’ve reached the age of reason, the age where they can figure it all out for themselves. Childhood is a difficult age, and hard for some children. It’s only been the last hundred years or so of civilization where we began to expect children to use the time of childhood to educate themselves, rather than working the fields, factories or shops of their parent’s existences. So why not create delusions where there is none in order to soften the cold hard reality of life.
Religion is a useful vehicle for this. It has a ready made explanation for why bad things happen to good children (and note: the brain tumor child of the Today show was described over and over as a wonderful child). It gives them something nice to envision, when all they are looking at is the end of their existence – never seeing mommy, daddy and their friends and siblings again. What better way to make it better for your child?
The problem with this is that it continues to propagate a lie. In effect, we have to lie to our children to make them feel better. I’m not saying that a little white lie now and then is not acceptable to help push children in the right direction, but this is not a little white lie. This is THE BIG LIE. The ultimate foundation of all truth.
We don’t continue the lie about Santa Claus into adulthood (though, with god, really we do, but that’s a different post, too). We don’t do it because it’s not true, and we want our children to live rational existences, rather than believing that some fat guy in a red suit provides them with goodies. It’s OK when they are young, because the expressions on their faces prove that they believe, and are happy with the explanations, and it provides us happiness to see it. To a certain extent, we do it for ourselves, not them. But, no harm, no foul.
You might say the same thing about telling a child that when he dies he will be embraced by those who came before, but I won’t. I see the harm in the perpetuation of this lie, not just to the child (who frankly will never know) but to the rest of the world, from the family, siblings, friends, neighbors and Today show viewers. With this treatment of a sick child, we reinforce the delusion for the rest of the world, such that it’s that much harder to shake when it becomes clear that there is no justification for the assertions underlying the lie.
What’s wrong with the truth? What’s wrong with an honest, forthright discussion about mortality? Some of the most comforting things ever said to me were the most honest ones, because I knew that I was being treated as an equal in knowledge, and that I was trusted to handle it.
When your terminally ill son asks “Am I going to die”, there is always an age appropriate response that contains the truth, albeit difficult to confront and relay, but still there. “Yes son, the doctors say you have a tumor in your head and they can’t make it go away. We are going to spend as much time with you as we can. What would you like to do today?” Essentially the same thing is said by the religious, but they temper it with “And once you’re gone you can look down from heaven and say hi.” Rather than emphasizing the end, emphasize the time left, and how to maximize that time. Dwell on the wonderful life he’s already lived. Make sure he knows he won’t be forgotten. Not only will the child actually have a better experience prior to death, and do all he can that he knows he won’t be able to do once he’s gone, he’ll be setting an example to those left behind to do the same thing. On the other hand, if he believes that he’ll still be alive (“up there”) after he dies, he may forgo maximizing the time left, maybe even wallow in depression, waiting for the better life being promised.
It’s cruel, in my way of thinking, to lead a child to believe that he’s really not dying, but that’s what’s being done when he’s told he’ll be in heaven. Perhaps in the end he won’t have any regrets, because he won’t know any better.
But everyone else will. And those same people may have a terminally ill child of their own some day, who they will need to talk with about mortality.
And the pattern repeats.
For dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return.