My 7 year old is an atheist
A mother writes on a popular blog why she is proud of her daughter's atheism. Dr. Craig highlights important issues in the article.
My 7 year old is an atheist
Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, the moms have been on a tear lately. We did a podcast about an atheist mom in Texas and why she wasn't going to raise her children with a belief in God. Another article has caught our eye from Carolyn Castiglia. She writes on babble.com (it's a place for moms, it's for women). It got some attention, and the article is “Why My 7 Year Old is an Atheist and Why I'm Okay with That.” She says,
I was raised Catholic, and like most people my age who were raised Catholic, I no longer attend church on Sundays. We’re “recovering Catholics.” That’s what so many of us call ourselves. . . .
I’m pretty much agnostic now (sometimes believing more strongly, other times thinking the concept of God is kind of a joke), but I value the way the idea of God has gotten me through the rough patches. And that has been the payoff. Somehow this notion that there is a giant man in the sky with long hair and a big robe who will hug you from heaven if you need it and carry you on the beach when you’ve had one too many wine coolers . . .
But the way I imagine God has changed over the years — He’s gone from being a person, a man, to being more of a Thing, a notion. Goodness. The Oneness of the Universe. . . .
My daughter, on the other hand, at the ripe old age of 7, is convinced that there is no God. Not even a god. Yup, my kid’s an atheist. And she pretty much has been since she was 5.
It’s not for lack of exposure to God or god or even gods and spirituality, because she has attended Church and church and a UU “church” [Unitarian Universalist, I'm sure, is what she's talking about there] and it has made no impact. We’ve prayed together. I talk about God sometimes, in a good way. When I asked her recently why she doesn’t believe in God she told me, succinctly, “Because I know too much about science!”
And there you have it — an evangelical’s worst nightmare. Science trumps God.
So, Bill, we have a single mom raising her daughter the best she can and noticing that her daughter doesn't believe in God because of science. She says, “because the idea that a man who lives in the sky, who can see everything you do, hasn't been pounded into her head since birth she thinks the whole concept is just silly.”
Dr. Craig: Well, I was struck by the fact that in her second to the last paragraph she says that she left her husband and now apparently lives with the daughter alone. So this little girl has not had, I think, a father figure in her life in the way that she should have. So I can't help but be a little skeptical that her unbelief is due simply to her thinking that she knows too much science.
Kevin Harris: The mother goes on to say,
The other night over dinner my daughter looked up at me and said, “Who created the Earth?” And I said, “Well, some people believe that God created the Earth, and some people believe that nature is a creation unto itself.” My daughter replied, “I think nature is a creation unto itself.” I said, “You know, you’re pretty staunch about the fact that there is no God.” And she told me, “Well, I don’t think he exists. If he does, he’s a ghost, and that’s weird. I just don’t believe it. You know, there are Universes beyond our Universe. Once you get outside the Milky Way galaxy, there’s a lot more stuff out there.”
Wow. When I was 7 I didn’t know there was a world outside my town.
Bill, it's one thing to question the sincerity or motives of a person who might be making an argument in a different way but it's also legitimate to look at what you've looked at, and that would be the background factors that could come about in the life of a child that are emotional in nature – maybe the lack of a father figure – and also having this idea that there's this man in the sky with a long white beard looking down over you. And that flies in the face of everything in science that a seven year old is going to hear today.
Dr. Craig: Yes, it's really rather shocking to think that this Catholic women, or ex-Catholic, would have such an anthropomorphic concept of God as a man in the sky with a long beard and a robe who's there to sort of rescue you when you get in trouble. This is a concept of God that isn't worth holding, that is mythological and imaginary, and it's certainly not the Catholic concept of God. She has adopted or grown up with a view of God which is just a gross anthropomorphism and misrepresentation of what orthodox Christians believe.
Kevin Harris: And she's already saying that there are universes beyond our universe at age seven.
Dr. Craig: I'm not surprised at that. A little kid who watches television or goes to school would probably hear about the Big Bang and that there are other galaxies and things of that sort. But how is that incompatible with the existence of God?
Kevin Harris: It's not.
Dr. Craig: It's not at all.
Kevin Harris: It's incompatible with a man in the sky with a beard.
Dr. Craig: Yeah, this crude anthropomorphic concept that the mother seems to have grown up with. Yes, it's very tragic to think that this little girl believes that because there are other galaxies, and even other universes, that somehow that's incompatible with God's existence and, in fact, doesn't cry out for the need of a transcendent creator and designer of the cosmos.
Kevin Harris: And I don't know what she meant by nature being a creation unto itself.
Dr. Craig: Yeah, it would be wonderful to sit down with this little girl and talk to her about the Big Bang and the origin of the universe and say, “How could nature be a creation unto itself if it hasn't always existed? What do you think brought the universe into being?” And talk to her a little bit about fine-tuning of the initial conditions. She might be very drawn to classical theism if she were presented with it.
Kevin Harris: And mom, you need to be able to answer some questions, I think, cogently. I mean, all of us, parents, we need to realize our kids are going to ask some deep questions at a younger and younger age. It's profound, and her mother is so proud of her daughter’s scientific mind. It's why you wrote the new series for children that you have.
Dr. Craig: Yes, and the very first one in that booklet is called God is Spirit. And in that we specifically address, interestingly enough, this false image of God as an old man with a beard up in the sky. Papa Bear explains that that's not correct, that God is a mind without a body, and he's not some sort of an anthropomorphic figure, and then the rest flows out of that. So unfortunately there is just a gross misconception of what God is. I think it's evident, too, from other things that the women says that she is very much in rebellion to the Catholic church's teaching on moral issues that causes her to be disaffected. She identifies things like the church's stand on abortion, same-sex marriage, and what she calls women's rights. Now I'm not sure what that means but she apparently thinks that the church is taking false moral stands on that and therefore she is disaffected with the Catholic church.
Kevin Harris: Yeah, the last line in this whole essay kind of speaks to that. She sees God almost as if he's a potential enemy of hers, even if he exists, when she says, “I think God is okay with that [the fact that her daughter is using her brain, and so on]. And even if he's not, I am. But most importantly my daughter is, and I so admire her for that.”
Dr. Craig: I couldn't help but notice, too, in the article, that the conception of God in masculine terms occurs over and over again: God is a man in the sky with a long beard; and, why should this man in the sky be telling me what to do? And now she wants to think of God in impersonal terms – he's not a man, she says, he's a thing, a sort of abstraction. There is a certain, again, I think, rebellion here against the Roman Catholic church, and then this popular anthropomorphic conception of God that she is rejecting and angry with.
Kevin Harris: And calling Jesus' crucifixion “that thing is gross,” and in saying things like “a dead dude” and things like that, I mean that shows also a disdain for these things.
Dr. Craig: Yes, yes, that's right. It's interesting, though, Kevin, the degree to which she says that when you're raised Catholic, she says, “It's something that never leaves you, no matter how hard you try.” She says it's all still in there somewhere. And I remember when I was speaking in Porto in Portugal one of the missionaries to Portugal told me that even though when you talk to Portuguese people they are secular as can be, they hate the Roman Catholic church, they are unbelievers, but he says, when you cut them they bleed Catholic. It is so deeply ingrained in people who are raised in this subculture and tradition that it remains with them forever in many ways.
Kevin Harris: There's one thing that you and I cannot be ever accused of doing, Bill, because we've always made sure that we don't do it. This podcast has never been a thing of just saying, “Oh, well, look how awful it all is, and, look at this, you know, isn't this just awful what this article says?” Instead, I could pull a lot worse articles than this if you wanted to see how awful it all was. [laughter] This lady is lighthearted and proud of her seven year old. I think, though, there are some important things for parents, for this lady, for children, in communicating the things of God.
Dr. Craig: Well, one would be very important is for fathers to be involved in the instruction of their children. Paul Vitz, the New York University psychologist, did a study of the great atheists of the last century or so, and he showed over and over again they were children who were raised in homes without fathers, and that the absence of a father figure was something that was conducive to atheism. And so the Bible – the New Testament – says to those of us who are fathers: fathers, bring up your children in the nurture and instruction of the Lord. So that's a command to us as fathers to carry out. It is not the wives and mothers who should be doing the spiritual teaching in the home. It should be the fathers who are in charge of the spiritual instruction of the children. And that's one reason that I wrote those Bear and Goose books as I did. You notice over and over again it's to Papa Bear that the children go with their question, and he opens the Bible, and then answers them out of the Bible. And while the mother reinforces what he says and contributes, the teaching role is primarily the father’s, and I think that's one lesson that can be learned from this.
Kevin Harris: Why do you think that is? Do you care to speculate at all? Why? Did God just kind of wire us that way?
Dr. Craig: Perhaps. I mean, Jesus taught us to think of God using the metaphor of a heavenly father, and I think that metaphor conveys two things: it connotes God's parental love for us, but also the authority of the father in the Jewish home, to be respected and obeyed; he's not to be trifled with. And so this image of God as the King – he is the King of the universe, the sovereign, our King, our Lord – and yet he's also our father, we're children of the King. And so that combines those in a nice way in the metaphor of a heavenly father and we earthly fathers are images to our children in a sense of that heavenly father.
Kevin Harris: So here's this single mom. Dad isn't around. She apparently doesn't have a dad in her life, this little girl. So you're just pointing out how that happens, but it's certainly not ideal, and it's not God's design from a Christian perspective that the father be absent.
Dr. Craig: Right, I mean, of course for someone who is in a situation where there isn't a husband in the home that mother will have to do this job then herself. But, as you say, that's not the ideal design. And for those of us who are fathers and who are listening to this podcast, I'm saying this for us – we need to step up to the plate and do our role in raising our children in the instruction and admonition of the Lord.
Kevin Harris: One more thing I think we can get from this, and this is a respondent to this article. After reading this article she writes in the comments:
Now that I am finished crying, I can respond to you that we must have been separated at birth -- I could have written this article word-for-word. My seven year old posed questions and made comments similar to your's. My seven year old is now almost 20 and it has been the most joyous, enlightening, heart warming journey with her. My fear with her self-declared atheism was the trouble she would encounter because, of course, Atheism = Satan worship according to my upbringing! I constantly tried to get her to use a different label... even agnostic was better than "that" word. But I finally grew to realize that she was so much brighter than I was... and was not ashamed by what other people thought -- she showed by her actions and deeds that not believing in God didn't mean that she wasn't compassionate, giving, spiritual and loving. People gravitated to her throughout school because of her inclusiveness, her support, her humor and zest for life.. all in spite of not having to base it all on what she was told to do in church. So let me assure you that you have so much to look forward to as you watch your daughter grow and become a young woman. Enjoy the ride...
Well, that makes me want to throw up, first of all. Because from an existential standpoint, and just from the meaning, what is there to look forward to? And why is this mother who claims to be a theist saying, “Isn’t it all wonderful that my daughter and your daughter are atheists and yet they are turning out to be wonderful people? So just enjoy it." Well, this is where Pascal's wager comes in a little bit. I mean, I don't misuse Pascal’s wager and neither do you, but Pascal's wager will wake you up in saying this is of utmost importance. It's not just my child is a Democrat and yours is Republican; isn't it wonderful and enjoy the ride.
Dr. Craig: Yeah, there are eternal issues at stake here, these are life and death issues. And I don't think either of these mothers have the sense that there is an objective truth about these issues. They seem to think that religion is something you adopt or not to help you get through the rough patches in life, that religion is a sort of psychological crutch that you may or may not need as you go through life. And that isn't what religion or religious faith is in the Christian conception. This is true, that there really is a God who exists, that he has sent his Son to die for your sin, to redeem you from your own evil, your own sin, to restore you to a right relationship with himself, and those are vital issues regardless of how popular you are in high school and well liked by your friends and how well you carry on. Those psychological questions are just not the material questions here.
Kevin Harris: From a theist standpoint you can enjoy the benefits of God's world and have a zest for life and recognize and act upon moral values and duties without belief in God but it leaves out the question of denying the very God that gives those things and who grounds those morals and values.
Dr. Craig: Yes, if God does exist then to live a life independently of him is to miss eternal life and the most important aspects of life in favor of just material goods. There's one other point that I wanted to make, though, that I thought was very significant about this article, and that is that the mother who wrote the article rejoices because the little daughter has become self-reliant, and the mother feels badly about her own life by saying, “I wish I had been taught self-reliance.” She seems to admire and almost envy the daughter's self-reliance instead of reliance upon God or some sort of a heavenly figure. And when she brought this up my mind went to a pair of verses that I recently ran into during my devotional reading that spoke about this. I was reading Philippians 4:11-12 in the Greek – I do my daily devotions in the Greek of the New Testament – and this passage says, Paul is writing: “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” Now the word that is translated there content – “I have learned in every situation to be content” – is autarkés in the Greek, and it means literally “self-sufficient, self-supporting, independent.” It doesn't mean content in the passive sense that, “Well, I'll just accept whatever my lot in life is and get on with it.” No, this is a word of tremendous strength. autarkés means “I have learned, no matter what circumstance I'm in, plenty or want, abundance or hunger, I have learned to be self-reliant. This is what Christ has wrought in me.”
Kevin Harris: Wow.
Dr. Craig: So the attribute that she admires in her daughter and wishes that she had been taught as a child is one that is a Christian virtue that comes through living a life filled with the Holy Spirit and lived in dependency upon God. It doesn't make you a passive, weak, impotent individual. It makes you a person who is autarkés, that is to say, self-reliant, self-sufficient, and that put a whole new perspective on these verses for me and the kind of person that the apostle Paul was. This was not a weak man. This was an incredibly strong man who learned how to be self-reliant, to get along no matter how his circumstances were, good or bad, Paul knew how to get through them. And he did this because of Christ in him. So this notion of self-reliance and strength is not something that is antithetical to Christian faith, but I think this is something that comes through discipleship to Christ and the filling of his Holy Spirit.
 Carolyn Castiglia, “Why My 7-Year Old Is An Atheist (And Why I’m Okay With That),” January 11, 2013. See http://www.babble.com/mom/why-my-7-year-old-is-an-atheist-and-why-im-okay-with-that/ (accessed January 25, 2014).
 This is a series of 10 illustrated books for children titled What is God Like?
 Total Running Time: 19:59 (Copyright © 2013 William Lane Craig)