An Imaginary Conversation with a 4 Year Old

Posted by on February 13, 2011 in Thoughts | 12 comments

Recently I was contacted by an online friend Julie asking me if I had any resources for educating children about religion in an unbiased fashion. I, as did they, searched the google-sphere and came up with nearly zero. Most of the links I found were how-tos of indoctrinating your child into a specific religion, something which I find abhorrent. I am of the opinion that we have to teach about religions to our children and in our schools, in all its manifestations, without giving any precedence to any or emphasising one over another. The kids will, in time, make up their own minds about religion, and given enough information will hopefully come to the conclusion that there is no God, or at least that organised religion is a scam. But we do have to teach it, after all, it is  apart of society, even if I think it is untrue.

Not to leave Julie in the lurch, I suggested I write an article about how I would approach the subject with a child in an honest and unbiased way. Since I can’t think like a 4 year old, the questions may not actually reflect what a 4 year old might ask. Think of it more as a primer for what answers you might be able to give, than a definitive guide to religion for kids. The final product is probably too adult for a 4 year old, but I hope it can give some pointers as to a way of approaching the topic of religion, God and death. This is what I wrote for Julie.

An Imaginary Conversation with a 4 Year Old

4YO: What happens when we die?

Me: Well that’s a big question. When we get old our bodies don’t repair themselves like they once did. You know how if you hurt yourself and you bleed, then the scratch goes away a few days  later, that’s your body repairing itself. When people get too old or too sick their bodies can’t keep up and they die.

4YO: A boy down the street said his grandma went to God when she died. What does that mean?

Me: Some people believe that when we die, it’s just a stepping stone to another life. These people think we go to live with God in heaven. Others think that when we die, that’s the end for us and we just stop being around on Earth. Others again believe that we come back to Earth as another animal, like a rabbit or a spider or an earthworm.

4YO: But who is God?

Me: Well, some people think that God created everything a billions of years ago. Others think that God created the world only a short time ago. And ther are those who think that everything came about naturally, and that there is no God. Different people believe different things. And when they believe in God, this is called religion. People have different religions depending on what they were brought up to believe.

4YO: But what is religion?

Me: A long time ago people didn’t have cars and TVs and phones. And people didn’t really understand how the world worked. When something happened, like an earthquake or a drought, people wanted to be able to explain how and why it was happening, but they didn’t have the technology we have to do it. So they looked around and used what they could find to explain things. They would look at a tree, or the sun, or the way an animal was acting, and try to piece together reasons for things. And there were many gaps in what they could see, more questions than answers, so people thought that these things they couldn’t explain were because of someone or something bigger than themselves.

You know how you can make a sandcastle at the beach, and then  you can stand on it? Some people thought that God made everything, then could make things happen to make them go away too. People thought that when something bad happened that it was God punishing them for doing something wrong.

But different people in different places came up with different explanations about why things happen. They wrote these things down and that’s how we ended up with religions.

4YO: Why did people think they were being punished?

Me: Because they didn’t have a better explanation for things.

4YO: But why?

Me: Well, these days we have tools to help us explain things. Like, once upon a time people thought that stars were holes in a big black sheet, but we know now that stars are actually just like our sun, only really far away. Just like we can explain stars, we can explain tides, earthquakes, just about everything. And we can explain more every day.

4YO: Why do people have different religions?

Me: It depends upon what you’ve been taught, and the answers you come up with during life. My parents were brought up being what’s called a Protestant. The man down the street, the one who wears a scarf on his head, he’s part of a religion called Sikhism. The Italian lady next door is part of the religion called Roman Catholic, and me, I don’t have a religion. Each one of these religions has a different set of beliefs about what happens when you die, and what you should do during your life to make God happy.

4YO: Why don’t you have a religion?

Me: Well, because I’ve looked at the world around me and come to the conclusion that there is no God, and that everything can happen naturally without needing to explain it with a God.

4YO: Why do people want to make God happy?

Me: I guess because people are scared of things they don’t understand. People still don’t now for certain what happens when they die, and some people fear they are going to miss the life they have on Earth once they die. Religions promise that you can live forever if you make God happy.

4YO: But why do we have to make God happy?

Me: Because people like to be happy, so they figure it’s only natural that God would want to be happy.

4YO: Why do people die?

Me: Because everything can only last a certain amount of time. Some things live longer than others, trees can live for hundreds of years, and people only live about 80 years, which is a long time too. Things have to change all the time, and dying is one of these things. Our bodies stop repairing themselves like they used to, and eventually it stops altogether.

4YO: What do you think happens when we die?

Me: We stop breathing, and we stop thinking. Our families bury us in a cemetery and remember our life. And that’s it really.

4YO: What religion should I be?

Me: You can be whatever religion you like, if you want to. But don’t do things just because someone told you to. Don’t follow a religion just because a friend says it’s true. You have to decide for yourself what you believe. That’s all part of the fun of being human. Now go outside and play, I’ve got to finish this blog piece.

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  1. Thank you for this thoughtful piece, Martin. I am still on my path of deciding what exactly I believe. So, today when I had to make the heartbreaking decision to put down my beloved little dog, I find myself swinging back to my lifelong belief system. The one where those we love go to “heaven” where we will one day be reunited with them. The idea that my Mollie waits for me, while she is cared for by those I love who have gone before, is the only thing that gives me comfort. What gives comfort to an atheist in a time like this?

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  2. I think this is a good attempt but maybe religion has more to do with the how and why we live out our lives now than just “keeping God happy”. If, as religion says, we have been given a gift of life, how do we make the most of the gift, how do we live our lives free of guilt and fear and instead, celebrate? I don’t think that is so far from the athiest who says “This is the only life I have so how do I make the most of it?”


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  3. I have to say that “Now go outside and play, I’ve got to finish this blog piece.” made me laugh out loud.

    It’s so hard. We want them to know about these things before they go to school and encounter others, but we want them to also have respect. We’re all about respect for others here. Our creed in general is The Golden Rule, which is all anyone ever really needs.

    I’m a skeptic, but I’m not willing to call myself an atheist because I’ve seen no proof that there is nothing larger or there IS something larger than this existence. I guess I’m agnostic. I don’t believe that’s a waffle. I just won’t actually believe in anything specific for which there is no proof. It goes both ways for me.

    With our children we’re worried that they’ll deal with ridicule if they don’t at least know the stories and such, this is the Southern US, and we want them to have some background. We also want to give them a gentle way of understanding that mommy and daddy don’t believe those stories, but that doesn’t mean you should disrespect folks who do.

    Dealing with what our daughter sees in media is bad enough. “I’m afraid of monsters.” “There are no monsters…” etc…

    It’s all very very hard, and this is great-

    “But different people in different places came up with different explanations about why things happen. They wrote these things down and that’s how we ended up with religions.”

    That’s gold.

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    • I’m an agnostic too, Julie, and I don’t believe that’s a waffle. There are plenty of agnostics who are deeply thoughtful out there. We just get flak from both sides ;)

      Jonathan from Spritzophrenia

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    • We are having the same discussions about our upcoming baby (prompted by this post, thanks Marty). We think we might take him/her to church 6-8 times just so it’s not completely foreign.

      And we think we might read Bible stories to them, for cultural reasons. So they can understand Shakespeare, other literature, art, history etc. Not knowing who Adam and Eve were might be limiting in a Western education. If we lived in a strongly Hindu culture we’d probably read them Gita stories.

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  4. This is wonderful. Thank you.

    There’s a wonderful scene in an early episode of the TV program Millennium. Frank Black is worrying what to teach his daughter Jordan about life and death, good and evil (within the context of the imaginary universe of the show, which has different nature-of-evil stuff from ours.) He’s talking about this with his wife, and ends with the question “What should I tell Jordan?”

    His wife responds, “Well, right now I think you should tell her ‘good night’.” Was reminded of this by the last question.

    I also thought of Tally Hall’s amazing song “Spring and a Storm” from their record Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum:

    [Children’s voices:] “Mr. Moon, tell us about the sky”

    The sky is deep and dark and eternally high
    Many people think that’s where you go when you die

    “Do you?”

    Well I think you return to obscure
    Or wherever you were, before you were
    But I won’t let you lose yourself in the rain

    By the way, I voted for you in the poll. Myers will win, but you still got my vote. :-) Also, I added you to my Live Blogroll — haven’t told you yet. Hope I get you some traffic.

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  5. Hi Martin

    My first visit here ~ looks good

    I think I would have said more about ‘life’ not being a rehearsal – use this life like it’s the only one & don’t expect a magic ticket to a better place after you are dead

    However I don’t think most children of four years are ready to discuss death

    Michael [Atheist]

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  6. I think you’ve done a brilliant job here, Marty. Talking to kids is very hard and I think you’ve pitched it fairly well.

    My only criticism would be the “But what is religion?” section. Here I think you are spending too much time on how religion might have developed, rather than what religions do. I think I’d answer more along the lines of “Religion is a way some people try to have contact with God. To religious people, God and religion are very important. There are different kinds of religion. Religious people might go to a special place to worship God. These places are often called churches, synagogues, mosques or temples. When they are there they do things they think will make God happy, like singing or reading stories about God. Some people talk to God, which they call prayer. Others meditate, which means they try and relax and think peaceful thoughts. Instead of doing these things, people who are not religious might enjoy a sunset or a walk, and feel happy about life.”

    You’re right, it IS hard! When I tried writing that I had to think a lot. I was tempted to keep explaining more, but I guess that’s for older kids. Or maybe from here you have to go into specifics about particular religions. Also, those kids who are raised in a particular religion will already have a “sense” of what religion means.

    I agree with your statement “I am of the opinion that we have to teach about religions to our children and in our schools, in all its manifestations, without giving any precedence to any or emphasising one over another.”

    Jonathan from Spritzophrenia :) (agnostic)

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  7. Another new visitor here, always looking for intelligent conversation among atheists (and others).
    We read the Bible and the Q’aran in high school english, as pieces of literature. Quite an interesting way to study religious books, IMO.

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  8. Last question’s answer lacks the option of disbelief. As in, it does not represent the option to not believe clearly enough.

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  9. The last question’s answer lacks the option of disbelief. As in; the option to not believe in any religion’s claims is not presented clearly enough. As it is now it says you should be careful with which you choose to believe, but you should choose. I would like to add something along the line sof; “But you can also not believe any in any religion, as many people do. The choice is entirely up to you.”

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  10. “Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief” by Dale McGowan
    is an excellent book on educating children about religion and critical thinking.

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