Believing in God as a Child

Religious education features in all schools, which is a good thing. I’ve had surprise from some quarters for that opinion because, as an atheist, a minority of people have assumed I would be against compulsory religious teachings in secular schools.

Not a bit of it. We should teach about religions in school, if only to show children that there are a huge variety of faiths out there – and that non-belief is also an option. It might sound silly, but I hadn’t ever heard of atheism when I was a child; I didn’t realise it was an option. I was once a card-carrying Christian, and proud of my faith; I lost it in a crashing moment of disbelief when I was 17. Even then, I didn’t identify as an active atheist or humanist for a few years after that – at least partly because there wasn’t such a thing as the internet back then, to the degree that it’s all-pervasive now. There was nowhere to look and no-one to talk to; education could have helped, but I went to a Catholic school, so RE lessons were heavily skewed in one direction.

My son is eight, and goes to a very good primary school. I’m waiting to hear more about its overall policy on religions, but they have regular RE weeks, which is a concept I’m taken by. I’ve just checked their website, and this term, they have a plan to look at religious festivals. Brilliant – I just wish atheists has festivals of some kind, so they could be discussed as well, but I digress.

My son has been asking questions for a while about god and faith. Two days on the trot this week he’s asked me what faith he belongs to, and if there is a god or not. I’ve had to think very carefully and slowly, as I’ve not wanted to force him to become an atheist like me. If he chooses to be, then I welcome it – but I want it to be because he’s thought about it, not because I’ve made him and he feels obligated.

I explained to him that the only think I wouldn’t do is label him as a particular religion; he needs to decide that himself if, when he was older, he wanted to join one. I quickly described each of the major faiths and what they believed, but I started to lose him after five minutes (I’m surprised I kept his attention that long) so left it there.

I was surprised when he turned up again ten minutes later and said, “Dad, why are you an atheist if Adam and Eve existed?”

Aha, now you’re talking. I’m no scientist (and the science teachers from my old school are currently all cheering), but I’m passionate about science and knowledge and learning. I’m also fortunate to live in a time when free enquiry is (mostly) encouraged, and people like Richard Dawkins and Neil Degrasse Tyson are excellent communicators of science.

Richard Dawkins’ book, The Magic of Reality, is written for a younger audience, and I’d made the point of reading it before my son came to live with me full-time. I hadn’t hoped to remember it all – I can barely remember my own birthday – but I knew where the book was on the bookshelf.

My son and I spent a very productive twenty minutes reading about evolution and how it worked. We discussed how science didn’t know all the answers, and that was rather exciting – otherwise, fact-gathering would just stop. As a fact gatherer himself, my son was appalled at this notion.

He seemed rather lost in thought, so I asked him what he was thinking. He admitted that the chapter in Dr Dawkins’ book had left him with a lot of questions about the universe. Good, I said, it should do. I told him that I wanted him to think and ask questions; in fact, the more the merrier. The following night, in fact, he skipped his usual diet of Harry Potter reading at bedtime and we read another chapter in Richard Dawkins’ excellent book.

Whatever my son decides to believe, I insist it’s based on knowledge and information. Even if we end up disagreeing on something fundamental, then at least he’ll know why he believes it – and then he can argue with me about it. Helping a child learn is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done, and a privilege I hope I’ll never forget.

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