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Is It Okay if Kids Believe God Sends Nonbelievers to Hell?

Discussing God, religion and moral beliefs with my 13-year-old daughter

Last night, my 13-year-old daughter, Sydney, strolled into the bedroom and plopped herself on the bed and said, “So, Dad, there was sort of an awkward moment at lunch today. You know my friend, Sara? Well, we were at lunch and the topic of religion came up. People were talking about Heaven and Hell, who God sends to Hell, and Sara, who is a fundamentalist, said that her church taught her that people who don’t believe in God go to Hell. It was kind of awkward, because I was sitting there thinking, ‘Well, then I guess, according to her, I am going to Hell,' I didn’t say anything because I did not want to make her feel bad. It was no big deal, since I don’t believe in the afterlife. But it was a little bit uncomfortable.”

As a bit of background, we live in a conservative southern town and have generally blended in and gone along. It has not always been easy. For instance, in our district there is weekly religious education in the public schools, where elementary school students are walked just off campus for about an hour or so a week and taught the truth of Scripture.

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Our kids stayed behind because our family is secular—my wife is a secular Jew, and I consider myself to be an agnostic atheist. What I mean by that is that I am agnostic as to whether there are heretofore undiscovered forces that would warrant the label “God-like” at play in the universe (seems possible, hopeful, and doubtful to me), and that I am atheistic in that I don’t believe in any of the personal gods that traditional religions espouse. They all seem to me to be man-made stories, with God being constructed in the image of man rather than the reverse.

My wife and I have shared our open, respectful and skeptical attitudes about religion with our children and, at this juncture, our children have essentially adopted our point of view (although we are open to them reflectively changing their minds).

Normally I would let this kind of incident pass, with some passive justification that people are free to believe what they want to believe if it is part of their faith. But perhaps because I had just read David Noise’s excellent essay on the dangers of the Congressional Prayer Caucus and Blake Page’s account of his painful experiences as an atheist at West Point, I decided to press the issue with my daughter to get her thinking about it.

“So,” I said, “You stayed quiet so it would not hurt Sara’s feelings? But what about your feelings? What does it say about your value as a person?”

“But if it were up to Sara,” Sydney protested, “She would not want me to burn in Hell, so it is not her fault. She knows it is not right.”

“But hold on,” I countered. “Sara knows it is not right. But wouldn’t she also say that the God she believes in is an all-knowing, all-moral, and all-loving God? If so, and she believes God would send you to Hell, then how can she really believe it is wrong to do so? At some level, God must know you deserve it.”

“I don’t know.”

“Here is what I think. I think that if there is a God, and he willfully sends people like me and you (especially since you are just a kid!) to Hell, then he is not and could not be a moral God. Thus there must be is something wrong Sara’s belief. Either it is not what God does or God is not moral. I understand why you stayed quiet, but I think we Humanists have probably been too accepting of being marginalized for too long.”

I then went and ordered her a copy of David Noise’s Nonbeliever Nation.

Gregg Henriques, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at James Madison University.

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