I got this email from a reader,
I’m deeply atheist but somehow my daughter “found God” and has my five year old granddaughter brainwashed …. Every time my granddaughter spouts her god talk I tell her “Grandma does not believe in god” and she continues with “why”… This is where you come in. By any chance, can you help me form an answer that gets her thinking, plants a seed? I’m stymied left to my own devices…all I can come up with “god is just a fairytale story honey”. Thanks if/when you have time!
and I was pretty stumped. This is a complicated situation to deal with. The child is not yours, and, assuming she has a good relationship with her mother, likely trusts her mom to the point she might get defensive if you imply, in any way, that anything her mom told her was not true. If the little girl gets defensive about mom, you’ve lost her. She’s not going to hear anything you say after that.
So, the question is, how do you get your granddaughter to question the claims of god made by her mother? How do you poke holes in the story without making her mom look like a liar?
The first thing I would do in this situation is promote and teach critical thought at every turn. You may not be able to change the girl’s mind now, but if you turn her into a critical thinker, she’ll have doubts all on her own eventually. Constantly talk to her about what’s real and what’s make-believe. Ask her endless questions about why she thinks the things she does – we’re not talking about the god claim here, we’re talking about everything else in her life. The act of asking why teaches her to reason out arguments in support of what she believes. It’ll teach her to search for reasons why she ought to believe something.
Next, talk to her about all the other religions. As often as you can. “Did you know that in another country, far, far away, there are little girls just like you who believe there is a different god. One that looks like an elephant. And instead of churches, they go to temples. Their mommies and daddies believe this god is true, and so they teach their little girls just like you to believe in their god. Just like mommies and daddies here teach kids to believe in the god you believe in.” Show her pictures of Ganesh. Treat it like it’s a bedtime story. As she grows and learns about how many different gods there are out there that people believe in just as strongly as her mother believes in the Christian god, she’ll naturally have questions.
You should also tell her stories of times when people were wrong. Tell her about how we used to think the earth was flat, and that humans once believed the sun was pulled across the sky by a god. Use these as examples when you tell her that no matter how strongly people believe in something, without evidence, you just don’t know. Don’t connect this to the god belief she has. Let her reach that on her own. You want to avoid bringing up the topic of her belief in god. Let her bring it up.
When she does bring up the topic of her own belief in God, that’s when you ask questions. Ask her why she believes in god. She’ll probably tell you that it’s because her mom believes in god, at which point you ask her why she thinks her mom believes in god. When she asks why you don’t believe in god, you can say, “Remember when I told you about the fact that a long, long time ago, humans thought the earth was flat? Remember that turned out to be wrong? Well, I have never seen proof that there is a god, and I wonder if, like the earth being flat, the existence of a god might not be true, too. So, I won’t believe in a god until I see proof.”
If, at any point, she seems like she doesn’t want to talk about it anymore, back off. Don’t push. Don’t be annoying. Just let her lead the way. Kids are naturally curious. It takes long, hard work to squash that with indoctrination, so you have the upper hand here. Use it. Reward her when she asks questions with long, enjoyable conversations where she’s free to ask what she wants and will never be judged for how she feels or what she believes. Constantly reassure her that no matter what she believes in or how different your views are from hers, that you love her and you’re proud of her no matter what. Use the phrases, “I’m so glad you asked me that!” or “What a fantastic question!” often. Tell her that asking questions is a sign of great intelligence and that she should ask questions about everything and anything she can.
We all know how it goes when kids ask questions in church. They’re given unsatisfying answers or they’re just brushed off. She will see the difference between that and the way you handle her questions with openness and honesty.
The key is, never to tell her that she or her mother is wrong. Just lead her to a place where she can question it on her own.
Unfortunately, that’s the best I think you can hope for. If you’re gentle, reassuring and honest, I don’t see why she wouldn’t grow up looking critically at everything she’s expected to believe. We know that critical thinkers, at the very least, have doubts about the god claim. If you can get her to doubt it, you’ve won.
Thanks for the great question! If you want to send me a question, email me at email@example.com.
How would you answer this question? Let me know in the comments!