I'm a 6th grade Social Studies teacher. The topic of religion as a part of culture comes up all the time. Today during a discussion of Greek myths, a student (a 12 year-old girl with a sweet smile) asked me if I believed in god. I paused and said, "Well, sure."
I felt that I was having a discussion with a child about Santa or the Easter Bunny. I didn't want to be the one to tell the child that all the adults in her life have been lying to her.
This has been bothering me all day. When this comes up again - I'm sure it will - should I lie as I did today, or should I tell the truth?
I understand your predicament.I worked as a therapist for years often with people who were suicidal and had "lost their "faith".When I've been asked I've always told the truth about my beliefs and it has NEVER interfered with my sessions.In fact (and i know its anecdotal) its always reinforced trust which is the imperative issue.
I don't think children are any different from regressed patients in therapy.Honesty and integrity will always prevail
Turning the question around would be a good option. Asking the child if they believed in a god. Followed up with asking why they believed or didn't. The point being you avoid assignment of the atheist tag onto yourself and you force the child to think for themselves. Logic, reasoning, and critical thinking should be administered to our youth as soon as possible.
I can actually answer from the viewpoint of the student! It hasn't really been that long since I was twelve.
I remember having a serious discussion about religion with a teacher when I was ten or eleven or so, but with a complete reversal of your situation. I was the atheist and she was the Christian, and she sat me down and explained to me why she and everyone else in the room was and why I wasn't. The important bit to this anecdote is that I accepted that. Granted, it might have been easier for me because everyone in my community believes in a god and therefore I'm used to not having the same beliefs as my teachers, but children are in fact cabable of empathy, especially towards teachers that they respect as authority figures and as people.
If you're afraid of some sort of clash or backlash, I don't know what you can do about it, but from what I've learned as a student, no kid wants to be lied to by a trusted adult. Especially at such an impressionable age, it might be better to open up a kid's world than to go with the flow.
I can totally see the unintentional harm in being honest. But you don't have to be dishonest in fear of the repercussions of actual honesty. It shouldn't hurt to admit that you're not a christian. However, if she asks what you believe, being a teacher I think the perfect answer would be something along the lines of "I believe in learning about everything." You really cannot go wrong with that.
But as someone mentioned before, that child respects you as an authority figurehead in her life. Do not be dishonest with her, as you would not want her to be dishonest with you.
Obviously everyone has their own viewpoint and answer. That sort of points to an answer of: customize it to each situation.
As someone who has endeavored to be honest while avoiding verbal and/or physical attacks, I try to use the truth while tailoring it to (my perception of) the person's intelligence, viewpoints, and goal.
If you are unsure of the reason for the question and suspect the questioner is religious you could say (if you really did believe at some point in the past) "I believed in god. We should stay on topic though." Note the past tense. The statement is true (if you used to believe) but leaves off your current stance and curtails further questions at that time.
If you know the person is religious and wants to create problems for atheists then it is quite correct to lie to them - you are defending yourself from a veiled attack. If the "sweet" smile is not standard for this student she could have been baiting you. (Yes, I realize this is unlikely - but only unlikely, not impossible.)
If the student is asking this in private and seems troubled, you need to estimate what their goal might be and, if it seems like they might be trying to come to terms with being agnostic or atheist, it might be best to be totally truthful to reassure them that they are not alone.
Wife: "Do you think this pants make my ass look fat?"
Scenario 1: It does, but you lie "No, darling whatever made you think that?"
Scenario 2: It does and you tell her truthfully the pants make her ass look gigantic.
Which of these do you think is more conducive to maintaining the peace?
Also please press the caps-lock once more. Using caps is the equivalent of screaming in people's faces, it is extremely rude.
And Scenario 3: They do, but you tell her "no, it's all that cheesecake you eat that makes your ass the size of Texas".
This approach is known as getting to the real problem and is particularly not recommended.
In relation to the OP question, this approach would become "No I don't and people who think there is a god are deluded fools". Also not recommended for teachers and others who work in the public sector, in the US anyway.
Though a small movie... The Invention of Lying, the first 3/4, felt like the ideal life for me. Little white lies are the foundation for a messed up society. In my fantasies about social renewal, I would decree an ethic that lying, even the smallest white lies, are frowned upon.
But of course we're stuck in this ridiculous society, where it seems that in everyday life, lies outnumber truths, by both our peers and our leaders.
The paragraph where you talk about prisoners/religions is a myth. It's kinda cool that atheists have become popular and united enough to have our own urban legends, but nonetheless. That myth is based upon a single purported personal correspondence from an ex prison employee. The fact is, USA/Canadian prisons do not census the beliefs of their inmates. I don't care to go through the entire 'demonstration' yet again, so I suggest you do some investigative research for yourself into the origins of this claim. It's fun to actually research such things, and you'll integrate it better anyway since it will come from your own hard work.