Can an atheist worldview offer any comfort to a child grieving after the death of her dog? Here are my thoughts on the subject, as an atheist and as someone who has lost a dog in the past.
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This is one of many reasons I don't plan on having children. My wife and I are both atheists, and my family is pretty disinterested in atheism/religion generally, though they call themselves Christians. My wife's family, however, is mostly Super Christians, who would want to teach our children about Jesus and Co. just as they had been taught. And that wouldn't fly. I get along with them well now, but I can see that being a big, constant conflict. I think children in our culture should be taught about Christianity and the Bible, since it has been and continues to be a big influence. But I think they should be taught Bible stories the same way they're taught fairy tales, or Aesop's fables, or Greco-Roman mythology: these are stories, these are things people believe or used to believe, but these things aren't real, most of these people never actually lived, and most of these events never really happened. I'd be fine with that.
That leaves room open for the child making up his or her own mind as an adult as to whether these beliefs of others sound like something he/she can believe, too. But most religious parents aren't interested in raising children who can make an informed decision on their faith as an adult.
We sent our daughter to public school, not because they don't teach religion but because it's a French school, and that's what's important to us. I think this is why my "Super Catholic" mother sneaks off with Olivia (my daughter) whenever I'm not around and drills her with religion. Luckily she lives 6 hours away and only see her about 4-5 times a year. You are 100% correct about presenting the bible as a fairy tale, there are some good morals in there. If they would cut out all the bad stuff and useless stuff from the bible, I'm sure it would make a great kids book.
The Bible is a great book, provided you don't insist there's anything divine about it. There are some good stories, the King James translation has some of the most beautiful writing in English, and it's a fascinating record of how the cultures that produced it felt about god and morality. The people who commit the most outrageous desecrations of the Bible are the people who want it to be the Infallible Word of God, which it obviously is not.
Integrity as an atheist. Compassion as a human being. Truth can make one feel righteous, but I think ultimately we have to temper that with kindness. Which sounds wise and understanding but in my experience involves replacing lies with convenient truths. Like "Your dog? Well... we're all made of stardust, see? And one day, everything will return to the stars..." etc etc. I don't know, just steal something from Battlestar Galactica, or Deepak Chopra or something
I bet Deepak Chopra has a hell of a TV at his place. Anyone want to help me steal that? We can sell it and split the cash and buy slightly less awesome but still very nice TVs with it.
When my daughter was about five, her hamster died. She asked her mother and I "Will you die?" We told her "Everything dies. Grass and trees die. Dogs and cats die. People die." We left it at that. As with sex, you just answer the questions they ask. Don't overload them with unsolicited detail.
I agree with you completely. I also have a black labrador whom my 7 year old daughter loves very much and she worries about him dying - he is only two now so we have a long time hopefully. I think that death and loss is a very hard thing for a child to accept - they think they are immortal at first. I was raised in the UK by atheist parents and also had the fears you had - the realisation and coldness but I also remember getting past this all at once. I suddenly decided that this was so far off and there was nothing I could do about this and immediately processed this and accepted it after several weeks of dread and fear. I felt a weight lift.
There are sad things about the world but the best thing we can do is help children face this. The mother you quoted taught her child to delude herself and just postponed the inevitable realisation of death until a time when the child would be older and feel the impact more deeply with more complex thought. By realising and accepting death is inevitable when you are a resiliant child this can be processed and accepted into your world view and you can continue to develop and grow with a solid basis of truth.
My daughter cried every night when her grandfather died when she was 4 and said she did not want to die and did not want us to die for about 6 weeks. She was inconsolable and we just held her and let her feel that tho it hurt us too then gradually it lessened and now she says 'I used to get very upset about dying, didn't I, but I don't now.' Children are so much stronger than adults - the whole world is confusing and scary but they have (usually) people who love them and happiness too. People die and life continues for the rest of us and we do have to feel sad at times and do not need to instantly fix that with delusion.
I have a very good children's book called The Tenth Good Thing About Barney which covers this - a child loses his cat and feels very sad and tells his father that its not fair and he does not like it. The father tells him that it is not fair and there is no reason he should like it. They think of ten things they loved about the cat and the final things was she was in the ground helping the flowers grow and that's a pretty good job for a cat.
Steve Shives, I wanted to thank you for the message about a child loosing their dog, it really hit home. I am also an avid fan of your videos, keep up the great work.
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