Should You Lie to Your Kids About Believing in God?
Why it's better not to lie about existential truths.
Posted Dec 30, 2019
Last month, in an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal, therapist Erica Komisar urged parents to lie to their children.
Despite the fact that deception and dishonesty are among the most corrosive, destructive elements to any relationship—especially within the family—a licensed psychoanalyst argued that lying is the right thing to do if you don’t believe in God and your kids ask you about that, or if you don’t believe in heaven but your kids ask you about what happens when we die. According to Komisar, in the face of such questions, parents who don’t believe in God or life after death should readily toss honesty to the dogs.
In my view, Komisar is wrong. Lying to your children about such important things as your existential beliefs could be toxic.
For one thing, there exists some initial evidence that children who are told lies by their parents tend to lie more themselves as adults. Additionally, the children of parents who lie tend to experience greater psychosocial adjustment problems in adulthood. As Dr. Kate Roberts has astutely observed, “If children are repeatedly lied to by their parents, then they begin to doubt and distrust even the simplest realities.”
Second, lying to children is often fundamentally hypocritical. Most parents teach their children to value honesty—for very good reasons—and should thus always strive to model honesty as parents.
Third, lying violates one of Immanuel Kant’s classic categorical imperatives that we ought to act in such a way that we would want everyone to act. Indeed, as a general rule of thumb, many believe that we should treat others—especially our kids—the way we ourselves would want to be treated: respectfully, frankly, and honestly.
However, despite all of the above, Komisar maintains that parents who aren’t religious should just, well... fake it. Pretend. Deceive. Lie.
No, no, no, and no.
There may admittedly be some circumstances when parental lying is necessary to avoid unnecessary embarrassments or impose needless burdens. For example, if we think our third grader’s artwork is uninspired, we need not express that openly when our child asks us what we think of it. Or if we think that our fifth grader’s best friend’s father is an alcoholic, we need not give voice to that if our child asks us what we think of Mr. Robinson.
But when it comes to our personal orientation to life and existence, to our own verities concerning nature and the universe, and to our well-thought-out conclusions regarding religious claims—and the rejection thereof—in my view, we ought to be open and clear.
Thus, to the many millions of parents today out there who are not religious—who are atheists, agnostics, or humanists of various stripes; who have either walked away from the religion of their youth or were never raised with religion in the first place; and whose numbers are rapidly growing, I argue that there’s no need to lie to your kids about your irreligiosity. There are plenty of ways to share your existential beliefs truthfully, sensitively, creatively, humanely, and lovingly.
For example, if your child asks you if you believe in God, you can offer various replies along the following lines, depending on the maturity of your child:
- “No, I don’t think so. Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe there is a God out there. But I just don’t see any evidence for such a being. But grandma believes in God; you can ask her about God and see what she says.”
- “No, I don’t believe in God. But I do believe in the goodness of people, the beauty of nature, loving family and friends, and fighting for justice and fairness.”
- “Well, I guess it depends on what you mean by ‘God.’ If you mean all that exists, or all of nature, then sure. If by ‘God’ you mean love, then yes. If by ‘God’ you mean existential mystery, then OK. But if you mean some Creator Being that watches everything we do and reads our thoughts and answers prayers and creates rainbows and ringworm, then no, I don't believe in that.”
- “I’ve spent a long time thinking about that question. I’ve read a lot about it. I’ve studied many religions. And my own conclusion is that there is no God out there. It’s just us, floating on this planet in space, creating meaning through the relationships we have, the causes we take up, the art we produce, the suffering we alleviate, and the awe and wonder we experience being alive.”
If your child follows up with something like, “But if you don’t believe in God, where did everything come from?” you can respond with answers along these lines:
- “I have no idea. It is a deep mystery. The source of creation is unknown. How time and space came into being is truly unfathomable. Science can explain a lot—and will be able to explain more in the future—but as for the deep question of why there exists anything at all, no one really knows for sure. And we may never know. So, the best thing to do is to focus on what we can know—like what makes a good friend, how to be kind, how to cure disease, how to help those in need, how to solve problems in the here and now, and stuff like that.”
If your child continues, and asks, “But if you don’t believe in God, why be moral? Why be good?” you can answer something along these lines:
- “I try to be moral and good because I have found that life is better when I treat people the way I want to be treated. I know what it feels like when someone steals from me—it feels bad. So, I don’t steal from others; I know what it is like to be hurt, so I don’t hurt others; I know what it is like to be lied to, so I don’t lie to others. It just feels bad to cause others pain. And it feels good to make others happy. And anyway, if you’re just being a good person because some magical being commands you and is watching you—and may punish you if you misbehave—are you really being good? I don’t think so. For me, ethical life is about treating people the way I would want to be treated, being as compassionate and empathetic as one can, working for fairness and justice, alleviating the suffering of others, and practicing humane virtues. Such an orientation to life requires no God—just decency, thoughtfulness, and a desire to live in a fair, kind world.”
Finally, if your child asks about death, here are some options (again, different versions are more appropriate given the maturity of your child):
- “No one really knows what happens after we die. Maybe we live on in some other realm that we can’t even fathom. Maybe we become one with the stars. Maybe we float in the clouds. Maybe some part of us is reborn in another life-form. We just don’t know. It is a mystery.”
- “Death is like a deep sleep that you never wake up from. There is no suffering when you are dead. It is just like a silent, peaceful nothingness. It is so sad that Grandpa died, and we will always miss him, and so we need to do things to remember him and keep him alive in our hearts.”
- “Everything that lives also dies. Everything. Flowers, ants, dolphins, and people. Some people think that it is the painful finality of death that makes life have meaning and prods us to live as fully as we can while we can.”
Recent research has found that children raised in non-religious homes do just fine. In fact, many do better than fine, exhibiting a plethora of positive moral traits that are sometimes more pronounced than children raised in religious homes. For more information on how to raise your kids both secularly and honestly, check out Raising Freethinkers and Parenting Beyond Belief by Dale McGowan, Relax, It’s Just God by Wendy Thomas Russell, Losing Our Religion by Christel Manning, or my own Living the Secular Life.