The Ethical Dilemma: How Do I Talk to My 9-Year-Old Niece About Atheism?

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Afraid of Damaging Child’s Faith: I have two nieces and two nephews who have been spending a lot of time with me this summer. My oldest niece is nine. She is incredibly curious about everything.

Last night she asked me to put the movie The Prince of Egypt on for her. We were watching it quietly, and then my biggest fears came to life: she asked me if I had ever read the story of Moses in the Bible. I told her that I had and that it was an interesting story. Then came the burning bush scene, when God speaks to Moses. She asked me if God ever talked to me. I told her no. Then she asked me if I have ever talked to God. I told her that I have prayed before in my life, and Christians believe that praying is talking to God. This was getting very uncomfortable. I knew that if we continued in this direction, I was going to have to tell her that I don’t believe in God. So I said I was tired and went to my room. But I know that she will continue asking questions and one day soon this conversation will happen again.

Is it right for me to tell a nine-year-old the cold truth about atheism? I’m certain that she doesn’t even know that it exists yet. How do I handle this without damaging her faith at such an early age?

—Between a Rock and a Nine-Year-Old

Dear Between,

If this was your biggest fear, you are one lucky person!

Unless there is someone (i.e., the parents) insisting your nieces and nephews be raised in a religious bubble with no exposure to any other views, I’m wondering why you dread simply being honest and straightforward with a youngster who is curious about your beliefs and experiences. And why do you think of atheism as the “cold” truth, rather than just the truth?

It sounds as though you are dragging around a lot of baggage that you should take pains to abandon before you extend it to your nieces and nephews. If your niece asked you to put on The Little Mermaid and then wanted to know if you’ve ever seen a mermaid and whether you believe in them, what would you say? Hopefully you wouldn’t have to feign a headache rather than tell her it’s a wonderful story but fiction, as many wonderful stories are—and still entertaining and valuable, even if not factual or realistic.

Please don’t reveal a guilty attitude along with your atheism. Atheism is nothing to be ashamed of—au contraire, it’s something to be proud of. Just engage this curious child in dialogue not only about what you think, but also about what she thinks. Talk about teachable moments!

You will probably hear plenty in the readers’ comments section about your notion of “damaging faith at an early age.” First of all, your letter gives no evidence that the girl has any faith—just an inquiring mind focusing on an animated feature film that happens to be about a classic Bible story rather than a classic fairy tale. And why would you, an atheist, think that helping her recognize fiction would be damaging rather than constructive? And why, oh why, would you think there’s any argument in favor of cultivating faith up to a certain age, after which it’s OK to dismantle it? That would be way more damaging than heading it off before it sticks.

So please stop acting like your atheism is some deep dark terrible secret and just be honest with the kids. Instead of saying you’re tired, say, “I’m glad you asked me that.”

Parted With My Posse: I live in the Deep South in a pretty small town. I graduated high school two years ago and just started my second year at my town’s local college. Growing up, I was raised around religion but now I don’t associate with it (I do try to keep an open mind when it comes to theology).

When I was in high school, I made a group of friends who attended a youth group at one of our town’s many churches. I began to attend and genuinely enjoyed it. After a year and a half, however, I slowly starting skipping them and then stopped going altogether.

I still remained friends with the group but that changed once graduation came around. Because I wasn’t seeing all of them every day at school, it was hard for me to be included in all of the things they did because it was centered around church or the things they did were after meeting with the church group (but thanks to social media, I’m able to see everything they do, when they do it, and who they do it with all the time). Now I hardly see them and only speak to a few of them.

There aren’t a lot of opportunities here to find people who share my beliefs—or lack thereof. I love my parents and siblings, but they’re the only people I see/hang out with because I’ve slowly grown apart from my high school friends. I’ve been feeling so depressed about it lately and am really worried about how this will affect me considering that there’s a history of depression in my family (both my uncle and mom are on anti-depressants).

I’ve been in this slump for the past year or so, but I’m starting a new job soon and I hope it will help me in the aspect of socialization and making new friends. But what if it doesn’t?

Little Atheist Lost

Dear Lost,

Here are some facts that may put your situation in perspective: making friends tends to be easiest in school, especially high school and college, where many people form one or more friendships that last for life. But most people lose touch with most of their school chums over time, as life takes them in different directions, literally and figuratively. After that, potential friends are fewer and farther between, and it may take concerted effort to find people you click with, particularly if that doesn’t happen where you work (and it’s not advisable to make work friends your only friends).

So although your high school friendships may have evaporated faster because of your disenchantment with the activity that kept you all together, it’s likely you would have drifted over time anyhow.

Now the question is, where do you find new friends? Although you think you’re alone in your lack of enthusiasm for the local religion, I’ll bet there are others like you—maybe even others in the group you left behind. You might try getting in touch with them individually for coffee or a movie and see where things lead. Even if your friends are still religious, they might not have a problem remaining buddies with you if you have no problem with them. There are also probably people like you in your college. Again, being friendly, coming up with things to do together, and gently dropping hints about your views could help you cultivate relationships, regardless of how closely they align with your religious perspective. Same with your new job. Don’t view yourself as a pariah. Present yourself as a perfectly fine person who can appreciate other fine people, regardless of their views, and chances are you’ll find some who accept you even if they don’t entirely agree with you and others who more closely share your perspective.

Of course, you can go online and look for local or virtual atheist/humanist groups that can make you feel less alone and possibly connect you with likeminded people in your area (some of whom you may already know). But the key to enjoying friendships throughout life is recognizing that you’ll never like everything about anyone all the time, and that you can enjoy the company of a wide variety of people—despite or because of what you consider their flaws. And they can like you back, if you just open yourself to that possibility.

If you don’t start finding any satisfying companionship and continue feeling isolated and depressed, please seek professional help. Maybe your uncle or mom, or your school’s health services can help you find a good therapist. But it sounds as though you may just be imposing a wall around yourself that’s preventing you from maintaining or forming relationships with the people surrounding you. You need to open that wall so you can connect.

Finally, consider making a move to a different kind of town. Perhaps you can transfer to another college next year, away from the Bible Belt. Or set your sights ahead to seek a post-graduation job where you have wider options both for a good career and a more satisfying social life.