July 24, 2014

Atheist Mama:
It's my pleasure to raise children grounded in reality.

An as yet to be released study--we only have the abstract of it on PubMed, so I haven't read the whole thing yet--indicates that kids from religious backgrounds are more likely than kids from nonreligious backgrounds to say that the protagonists of fictional stories involving either magic or divine intervention to make impossible events happen are real people.

Some blogs are jumping on this as evidence of...what, I don't understand exactly. But this Atheist Mama sees it as a moment to discuss one of the supposed pitfalls of secular parenting: the loss of wonder and imagination as kids become more rational and analytical.

And that, my friends is a lot of horse brouhaha.

First, a word on the study itself. Here's the abstract:
In two studies, 5- and 6-year-old children were questioned about the status of the protagonist embedded in three different types of stories. In realistic stories that only included ordinary events, all children, irrespective of family background and schooling, claimed that the protagonist was a real person. In religious stories that included ordinarily impossible events brought about by divine intervention, claims about the status of the protagonist varied sharply with exposure to religion. Children who went to church or were enrolled in a parochial school, or both, judged the protagonist in religious stories to be a real person, whereas secular children with no such exposure to religion judged the protagonist in religious stories to be fictional. Children's upbringing was also related to their judgment about the protagonist in fantastical stories that included ordinarily impossible events whether brought about by magic (Study 1) or without reference to magic (Study 2). Secular children were more likely than religious children to judge the protagonist in such fantastical stories to be fictional. The results suggest that exposure to religious ideas has a powerful impact on children's differentiation between reality and fiction, not just for religious stories but also for fantastical stories.
I don't think we can really draw conclusions from just this, because without the actual data behind it...well, we're just parroting the abstract of a study we haven't actually read...and that's kind of against every rational bone in my body.

One of the criticisms that I have seen lobbed at secular parents is that they are robbing their children of a sense of wonder at the world. I heartily disagree with this on a variety of levels, but let's look at it in light of a kid that believes in supernatural explanations, and a child that doesn't.

I recently started reading Parenting Beyond Belief, edited by Dale McGowan. I highly recommend this to any of you that are out there that are attempting secular parenting--or even those of you that don't intend to raise your children without religion but would like more information on how we construct morals and values. We can all learn from each other, folks.

One of the first essays in the books is "Navigating Around the Dinner Table" by Julian Sweeney. In it, Sweeney talks about discussing the death of her father with her then four-year-old daughter. Here's an excerpt:

When she asked "What happens after we die?" I said, "To be honest, darling--we decompose." And she wanted to know what that meant. A bird had died in our backyard and so we watched how it disappeared a little bit every day. When I tell this story to people, they look at me horrified. LIke I was forcing some horrifying truth onto a little kid too small to understand it. But actually, she got it just fine, possibly because I didn't only say that. I said two more things. "When you die, your body decomposes," I said. "It breaks down into all these teeny parts you can't even see--like dirt or air even. And then those particles become part of something else." And my daughter said, "Like what?" And I said, "Well, like a flower or air or grass or dirt or even another person." And she said, "Well, I want to be another person!" And I said, "Yes, I understand. But even if some of your molecules became part of another person, it wouldn't be you. Because You are You and when You are gone, there will never be another You in this world. You are so special and unique that this world will only ever make one of You. With You they broke the mold, so that's it! Only You. Right here, right now." 
And she seemed to kind of get that. In fact, it made her feel special. 
And then I told her a second thing: that her grandfather did live on after he died, inside of the people who were remembering him. And in the ways he influenced those people, even when they weren't thinking of him. Like, how Grandpa just loved orange sherbet. Now, because of that, we eat orange sherbet too and we remember him when we do it. Or even things that we might not think about him while we do, like when we watch some basketball on TV. We might do that because of Grandpa who love to watch basketball on TV. Because of him, we are different. In probably thousands or even millions of ways. And that difference is what makes him live after he dies. 
And she really got that.
Here we have a completely non-supernatural explanation of one of The Big Questions™: What happens after we die?

It's rational. It covers a variety of bases, from explaining what happens physically to explaining that we are more than what we see to offering comfort that our loved ones are still with us.

My beloved grandfather on my mom's side died when I was eleven years old. Today, he still lives on in me--I get my love of music from him, and I fondly remember sitting at his knee while he played guitar and sang. His desire to always learn more also impressed on me--you can never know everything. In these ways, his existence continues.

So I am to say the least completely impressed by Sweeney's approach here. I don't know that I could have come up with something so well, and I love the approach of it. But I digress. Our central question is: Does this child lose some wonder of the world because she doesn't believe that her grandfather is in heaven?

And to that I would say: No.

The ability to distinguish between facts--Grandpa is dead, he's not waiting somewhere, he's gone--and comforting fiction doesn't mean that she's losing out on the wonder of the world. In the physical explanation, she's clearly learning a lot about her own existence--to live every day, for instance, because all we have is "right here, right now". That she's special--there will never be another like her.

It's not a loss of wonder; it's a transformation of it. Now she can picture what she may become, in another "life". What adventures could she have?

There's really a wide variety of scenarios in which wonder can take hold and grow.

You may be wondering what the point of this whole exercise is, but I think it's pretty clear. No, I don't want to jump in and scream, "We're better than you!" based on an abstract for a study that has yet to be published and that I have not read. What I do think we can agree on is that both secular and religious parenting provide plenty of room for wonder and imagination.

And that's good enough for me.

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