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.