Skip to content

But Why, Daddy?

The other day one of the moms from our kids’ kindergarten class asked me for some “pastoral” advice about how to deal with what was for her son, the traumatic discovery that everybody dies (this discovery came via the film Charlotte’s Web). I fumbled and mumbled my way through some explanation of how we try to teach our kids that God is ultimately going to reclaim and redeem the world of our present experience, validating all that is good and true etc. My response may or may not have been adequate, but I was reminded of some of the questions that arose when our kids recently encountered death. One of their preschool friends was tragically killed in a traffic accident last year, and I remember being surprised (and heartened) by their bewilderment—even outrage—that such a thing as death should occur.

I’ve wondered about what (if anything) this intuitive child-like sense of the lack of fit between death and the world says about us as human beings. Two books that I’ve read recently point to radically different answers to the question. First, I recently finished (endured?) Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. The book was every bit as poorly argued, belligerent, arrogant, and defensive as the reviews of it I read had led me to believe it would be (See, for example, here, here, here, or here). The book is full of curious claims (i.e., religious belief is a ‘mind-virus’ which involuntarily infects people through the cultural transmission of ‘memes’) including that to raise a child in a religious tradition is a form of child abuse.

Dawkins admits that children seem to be hard-wired to be, if not religious, then at least inclined toward a form of dualism which accepts the existence of non-physical entities. This, of course, is nothing but a delusionary belief which must have provided some adaptive value in our distant evolutionary past. At any rate, Dawkins is clear that the beliefs that seem to come naturally to children—tooth fairies, Santa Claus, flying spaghetti monsters, God—represent a stage that is to be grown out of. Children, the intellectually deficient, the willfully ignorant, the indoctrinated—belief in God is for these people; atheism is for thinking grown ups.

I came across another perspective on the role of childhood in Susan Neiman‘s Evil in Modern Thought. Neiman takes a position quite different from Dawkins. For her, the questions that come naturally to children are more plausibly interpreted as pointing to real existential problems and needs. Neiman argues that the “childish” desire that every question have a sufficient answer—both from a physical and a moral perspective (thus, allowing for the possibility of a God)—is at the heart of reason itself:

Children display it more often than adults because they have been disappointed less often. They will continue to ask questions even after hearing the impatient answer—because that’s the way the world is. Most children remain adamant. But why is the world like that, exactly? The only answer that will truly satisfy is this one: Because it’s the best one. We stop asking when everything is as it should be… In the child’s refusal to accept a world that makes no sense lies all the hope that ever makes us start anew.

There is a striking contrast between Dawkins and Neiman with respect to the significance of children’s intuitions. The former sees childish tendencies as something to be outgrown (although, interestingly, only those that tend towards belief in God—Dawkins obviously wishes to encourage children to ask questions, just not to arrive at conclusions different than the ones he has reached). The latter sees the “childish” demand that the world conform to intuitive senses of justice, meaning, and goodness as being at the very heart of reason itself, and providing the impetus that drives philosophy:

But the child may also be a figure of promise. She approaches the world in wonder as well as in fear. Here innocence can be a source of strength… The urge to greet every answer with another question is one we find in children not because it’s childish but because it’s natural.

I suspect it will not be difficult to detect which of the two views I favour. When I think of our kids’ classmate’s virtual outrage that there should be such a thing as death, and our own kids’ reaction to the death of their friend (Why? But we’ll see him again, right?) I think it is much more sensible to at least entertain the possibility that their questions and concerns might actually make contact with reality, and reflect some element of what they were created to be.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Interesting post, Ryan. It sent me to daydream about this thought – do children prefer the kind of change that only adds rather than subtracts from their lives? If so, why?

    May 4, 2007
  2. I think that all of us prefer the kind of change that adds rather than subtracts from our lives. Part of this, I think, is the kind of relentless questioning and expectation of goodness and order that we expect from the world that Neiman alludes to (and sees so prominently in children).

    As a Christian, I obviously believe that the “why” part of the equation has to do with the fact that we were created by God to delight in (and feel the absence of) things that enhance, rather than diminish what it means to be human – things like order, goodness, truth etc.

    (Did I miss your point entirely?)

    May 4, 2007
  3. I don’t know if I had a point. Sorry if I was being vague. I’ve just been pondering immutability lately – wondering what can/should an individual feel entitled to forever.

    Maybe my point is about maturity. Maturity, like death, diminishes our old life. However, death is usually understood as having no future addition of life given to a dissolving body to continue its journey. So, I guess I’m wondering – why should we expect an addition of life when we’ve used up our old one?

    Jerry

    May 5, 2007
  4. I think one of the few generic religious convictions is that human beings somehow survive physical death. Whether it’s reincarnation, nirvana, merging with the Brahman, or more familiar (to Western ears) understandings of heaven, there seems to be a fairly pervasive sense that physical death is a door to something else, however differently this “something else” is conceived of. This is observable across cultures and throughout history.

    There are, obviously, exceptions. A strict naturalistic worldview, such as the one set forth by Dawkins, would consider this to be absurd. He quite clearly equates maturity with abandoning any childish belief that we survive physical death.

    I guess I always wonder why it would ever occur to human beings that they would or could survive death. Evidence to the contrary was surely never lacking. People like Freud and Dawkins would say that it’s just a pathetic response to childish fear – that the world is harsh and difficult, and we should just get over it and stop our metaphysical whining and accept the fact that once we die, that’s it.

    Others will say that the human longing for more than this life offers makes objective contact with reality – it’s a longing that is God-given, and bears witness to what we were created to be. Obviously I would fall into this camp. I’m not prepared to say that something as pervasive and central to human experience as the protest against death is always and only pure imaginative fantasy.

    May 5, 2007
  5. “I’m not prepared to say that something as pervasive and central to human experience as the protest against death is always and only pure imaginative fantasy.”

    I won’t speak for others either. From my personal experience, I haven’t seen any reliable evidence why people come to the conclusion of the afterlife. I read an article in Philosophy Now magazine that writes a compelling argument based on research of Near-Death-Experiences. I’d like to study the research myself. It sounds interesting.

    Either way, the pervasive belief in the afterlife that’s been around for thousands of years is not based on this NDE research. So I, personally, find it difficult to rely on the majority in this case.

    May 6, 2007
  6. I’m not sure that I share your confidence in “NDE research” to pronounce authoritatively on the matter of life beyond this one. Near death is not the same thing as post-death so I’m not sure the study of these experiences could settle anything.

    The existence of an afterlife (or, from a Christian perspective, a future life) seems to surely lie beyond the realm of what can be studied by analyzing people’s brain-states in the present.

    May 6, 2007
  7. I don’t think my above comment gave any inclination that I’d pronounce “authoritatively” about NDE research. I mentioned it because it is the only example I could think of that resembles something qualifiable about the afterlife.

    I think the because-everyone-else-is-doing-it stance is not a legitimate argument to join the “protest against death” because, as I’m sure you’re well aware of, people can follow the crowd and still be wrong.

    May 7, 2007
  8. “Either way, the pervasive belief in the afterlife that’s been around for thousands of years is not based on this NDE research. So I, personally, find it difficult to rely on the majority in this case.”

    How would you interpret this statement if not as saying that you consider “NDE Research” to be more authoritative and trustworthy than a pervasive human belief? The fact that pervasive belief in the afterlife is not based on a current research program is provided as a reason for your not going along with the majority. This leads me to believe that you consider the goals and methods of NDE research to be up to the task of adjudicating the matter.

    Incidentally, I don’t think that acknowledging a well-documented human existential need that has been attested to throughout history and across cultures by some people who were fairly committed to hard thought on the matter is equivalent to going along with an “everyone-else-is-doing-it” stance. In characterizing it as such, you seem to presuppose that a belief in life after death could not, by definition, be the result of serious reflection or spiritual discernment.

    I’m not suggesting that its historical prominence proves that there definitely is a life after this one, just that the phenomenon is significant and, from my perspective, worth taking seriously.

    May 7, 2007
  9. “I’m not suggesting that its historical prominence proves that there definitely is a life after this one, just that the phenomenon is significant and, from my perspective, worth taking seriously.”

    I agree that it’s worth taking seriously, just not as a serious argument.

    May 7, 2007
  10. You said: “I agree that it’s worth taking seriously, just not as a serious argument.”

    I confess that it’s not clear to me what you mean by this. I can think of two options:

    1) The phenomenon of the historical prominence of belief in life after death does not, in itself, constitute a comprehensive “serious argument” for the truth of these beliefs;

    2) The phenomenon of the historical prominence of belief in life after death can play no role in any kind of a “serious argument.”

    If the former is what you had in mind, this seems to just be a restatement of what I said. If the latter is what you meant, then I would would wonder in what sense you did, in fact, agree that it was worth taking seriously.

    Or perhaps I’ve misunderstood you entirely and there’s some third option that I’m missing.

    May 7, 2007

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Googling Eschatology « Rumblings

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: