“Lying about God and promoting a Pollyannaish understanding of religion isn’t going to help at all.”
When people who don’t believe in a conventional, supernatural God ask me how they should talk about God with their children, I suggest they share what they do believe rather than what they don’t believe. Erica Komisar, in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (12-6-19), offered a different view: “Lie.”
“The belief in God—in a protective and guiding figure to rely on when times are tough—is one of the best kinds of support for kids in an increasingly pessimistic world,” Komisar writes. Komisar is a psychotherapist and I’m not, so I’m not going to argue with her. Still, her suggestion troubles me.
Let’s say you do lie and talk to your kids about a protective and guiding God, what do you say when your child is shattered by the death of a classmate? Now you have to explain why this protective guiding God, in whom you do not believe, allowed this child to die. In other words, you will have to compound your original lie with another. And then another and another every time the last lie fails to address the next trauma. Eventually you will have to admit you were lying all along. I wonder if the discovery that you were lying to them all this time doesn’t in fact increase children’s pessimism about God and decrease their trust in you?
And lying is only the beginning. Komisar shares the results of a Harvard study that shows “children or teens who reported attending a religious service at least once per week scored higher on psychological well-being measurements and had lower risks of mental health.” Lying to your kids about God isn’t enough; now you have to drag them a weekly worship service extolling the God you don’t believe in as well. Lucky for you, since you don’t believe in any God, you can choose to go to any religious service you want.
“The idea that hundreds of people can gather together and sing joyful prayers as a collective is a buffer against the emptiness of modern culture.” If this is true and if singing together works for unbelievers as well as believers, then it isn’t God that matters, but communal singing. If this is true, you can skip church and take your kids to a rock concert, or sporting event where they chant Queen lyrics, or hang out at a karaoke bar.
Komisar goes on to write, “Spiritual belief and practice reinforce collective kindness, empathy, gratitude, and real connection.” If this is true, why do so many religious people—Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists—exhibit the very opposite of kindness, empathy, gratitude and real connection with those their respective religions consider “other”? If this is true, why are the most religious countries in the world among the most xenophobic, angry, and violent?
The answer to what ails society isn’t religion, but rather kindness, empathy, gratitude, and real connection. And lying about God and promoting a Pollyannaish understanding of religion isn’t going to help at all.
My Own Approach
When my grandson asks me about God, I will share with him what I shared with his dad: “God is like an infinite ocean and you and everyone and everything are its waves.” When my grandson asks me about death, I will say, “Just as each wave returns to the ocean that waves it, so you will return to God.” And when my grandson asks me about divine guidance, I will say, “Just as you and all life are a part of God, so you and all life are connected in God. And because you are, living a life defined by kindness, empathy, gratitude, and real connection is the truest life you can live.”
And if my grandson asks me, “Zayde, do actually believe all this stuff?” I will say without reservation, “Yes I do.”
If you enjoyed this story, you might also enjoy Rabbi Rami’s story “The God Gap.”