Agnostic Humanist In The South

“Mommy? Are You Going To…Hell?”

Photo Walk at the Botanical Gardens

Nikki has been asking a lot about religion lately. It started several months ago when she asked me what I believed about Jesus, as children at school were talking about Jesus at school. Several of them had said he’s not dead and that he’s God. She asked if I believe that. :sigh: At least the What Is S-E-X question has a clear answer. This one? Trickier to explain.

I told her that I believe Jesus was an extraordinary man who taught people about being good. I told her that my idea of “God” and her friend’s idea of “God” were not the same. I explained to her what religion was and how those concepts were part of her friend’s religion. I explained to her about different religions and some elements of the more popular ones: Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism. At least as well as I can considering I’m not an expert on any of them.

Well…she did what all children do with scandalous information like this, and went and told her friends that HER MOMMY DOES NOT BELIEVE IN JESUS OR GOD. This has snowballed and I fear the children now discuss/argue these concepts almost every day. Her poor teacher has been put in a position where she has to simply tell the children that she can’t tell them what SHE believes, it’s against the rules, but she has to find a way to quell any storms without taking sides. She has talked to me about it, apologizes for not being able to really participate in the conversation, and told me she has tried her best to explain about different religions too. I feel bad for the poor woman…who knew she’d be dealing with this in preschool?

I’ve told Nikki anyone can believe what they want and we shouldn’t dislike people based on what they believe. Of course, her friends just know what they believe is RIGHT and everything else is WRONG. So this concept is one she likes to argue a bit.

Last night I had to go deeper and explain that a lot of religions believe their way is the only way, and that we should not argue with those people because religion is like family: We are very loyal to our family and don’t like it when other people talk bad about them. I explained to her that it may feel like Mommy believes one thing and everyone else believes something different, but there are millions of people in the world who don’t believe what her friends believe. That it’s not just Mommy. And that Mommy doesn’t mind if people think she’s wrong, and she shouldn’t mind when she grows up and finds people who disagree with her.

She asked what she should believe. I told her she can believe whatever she feels is right in her heart. That my only hope is that she doesn’t ever think bad, or that bad things are in store, for people who believe differently from her. I explained that, that is one of the things about a lot of religions that upsets Mommy. Many religions believe that if you don’t believe what they do, then you’ll go to Hell when you die.

Oddly, I didn’t have to explain Hell.

I explained there are religions that don’t believe Men and Women should get married. There are religions that think Men should be allowed to do more things in the church than Men do. I told her that are religions that teach hate and intolerance. I just told her that I hope that whatever religions she chooses one day, that she follows her heart and loves everyone and treats everyone fairly: regardless of sexuality or gender or religion. I told her about how Jesus offered Love to everyone, even criminals and sick people. Even people no one else wanted to love. And that she should just remember that if her friends talk bad about Mommy for not believing that Jesus is God.

Parenting is hard. I have no idea if I I’ve been handling any of these conversations well, but we’ve had many of them. I’m hoping eventually the key points will sink in: We should treat everyone with kindness and love and fairness no matter what they believe. There are many different religions in the world to choose from, and you don’t have to choose one just because your friends do. That Mommy is not going to Hell.

I just know that many of us have bonded over the same dilemmas, so I thought I would share what I’ve been trying to teach Nikki when it comes up in her life. What I would love is a good, 5-year old and younger targeted book that explains ALL major religions. I’ve not found any that don’t seem too wordy, or too Judeo-Christian. If you find any, let me know. I don’t know as much as I should, I’m sure, and eventually she may have more question I need to answer. For now? I hope I’ve answered enough to ease her mind in the present about the destination of my soul. I think a lot of her interest is just my daughter and her LOVE of DRAMA. It gets her attention to talk about her Mommy and her heathen ways.

But I do feel like there is legitimate concern about being different. And these are difficult concepts to wrap MY head around, and I’m an adult. For her? A 5-year old just knowing that her friends think that her Mommy is going to Hell? It’s especially difficult.

I hope I did okay.

32 thoughts on ““Mommy? Are You Going To…Hell?””

  1. Kim, I’m dealing with this exact issue with my 9 year old son. Glad to see I’m not alone. =) The other day he asked why we don’t go to church because a lot of his friends do. I told him it isn’t necessary to go to church to be a good person and lots of people around the world don’t attend church. We live in a small town in Western PA and this concept isn’t very popular here. I told him that people have the right to believe whatever they want, but they don’t have the right to impose that point of view on others. Again, that concept isn’t very popular here.

    It seems you and I share similar spiritual/religious beliefs and I think you did a great job explaining things to Nikki. Your answers to Nikki have given me some great points to share with my son. Thanks! =)

  2. I agree with Wendy and think you did a smashing job keeping it basic, broad, and open-minded. Tough topic, handled well.

  3. It sounds like you are doing a great job explaining this to her. It’s too bad some of the other parents aren’t talking to their children about not telling their friend her mom is “going to hell.”

  4. I think you did a great job of explaining this very amorphous topic to her. I was hoping someone in the comments had a great book suggestion, because we have these talks too (albeit less frequently than you are right now). I pity their poor teacher!

  5. I think you are doIng a great job! I hope I can do as well when my son starts asking.

  6. Oh yes, those questions are hard. Do you have a good children’s librarian at your library? You likely won’t find an age-appropriate book that explains all religions at one go, but a good librarian can help you find books about individual ones. My son has read picture books about Buddha, Jewish folk tales, Hindu creation myths etc. Gerald McDermott has awesome picture books about myths & legends from all over the world. He’s won several Caldecott’s, and his books are gorgeous. The danger is, of course, presenting the Bible as “fact” and everything else as “story,” but you’re not doing that. Don’t deprive her of learning Judeo-Christian stories, though — they are the dominant myths in our culture and she’ll be at a disadvantage not knowing them. But if you present them as one way of many of explaining the world, you’ll still convey your message that Christianity is no more or less valuable than other religions.

    As for hell — it makes her the center of attention at school AND at home. What 5 year old would turn down that opportunity? 🙂

  7. It sounds like you did a great job!

    For books, you might want to look into things marketed at Universal Unitarians. Their “Sunday School” concept is to teach all the religions so I would imagine they have books that cover those topics as well for the young crowd.

  8. There are good book suggestions on the Unitarian Universalist Association website. We’ve been where you are- just keep the discussion ongoing.
    I wish I could suggest a specific book. We attend a UU congregation and my kids understand the concept you’re teaching (everyone has their own religious journey), so I’m trying to teach my kids a bit more about Christianity so they won’t start judging their grandparents!

    good luck

  9. In their defense (grin)…I’m guessing it was probably something she kinda worded herself. She has a knack for the dramatic delivery, verbally speaking. My guess (just based on how she explained it) is that her friends were SHOCKED! her Mom doesn’t believe in God/Jesus and then they probably recited something about how everyone needs to or they have to go to H-E-L-L. She’s probably the one that THEN said, “My Mommy is NOT going to H-E-L-L!” because she has an awareness for the performance value of some discussions. Heh.

  10. Yeah – I know how important those Judeo-Christian stories are as I neglected to ever explain t E the Nativity Story properly…putting him at quite a disadvantage as he got older! I have learned my lesson with Nikki – but I know those stories so I don’t feel it as necessary to buy books explaining them. I only know the very minimal/basics of other global belief structures. I’ll check out the author you suggested!

  11. Oh, I just love you. I too have the exact same beliefs as you. I haven’t been asked this question yet, but I know it’s coming. The other day I overheard my 4-year-old quietly singing “God our father, God our father…” to himself. I don’t think he even knows what a “God” is, but they sing it before lunch/snack at his daycare. My husband is Catholic, so it’s going to be interesting when we start getting asked questions, because obviously my husband thinks HE is right, while I want to give them the exact same explanations that you gave.

  12. Even just to teach MYSELF, because I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have much of a global religion foundations either.

  13. For awhile, when Nikki would repeat the prayer they say at school before meals, she would say “Thank you Guys” because she didn’t even know the word “God”! Ha! She has sense figured that one out.

    Both D and I come from a very long line of Catholics, so never want to teacher her that Christians are “wrong” – we don’t want her thinking that about her family – we just hope she understands that “beliefs” aren’t always black and white. The problem is, most religions teach just that: it IS black and white and their way is the RIGHT and everything else is the WRONG. Very tricky. Let me know if you discover any tips to handling it in a way that doesn’t alienate Catholic family! 🙂

  14. I hear you, I’ve had these discussions with my 3 daughters. I had one kid go as far as to tell my daughter she was going to hell. As they were in MY car at the time? I couldn’t help but explain to him we didn’t believe in hell so there was no way for us to get there. It is so tough as a parent! I did buy this book:

    It has some good stuff in there!

  15. Wow. Who knew that this would come up so early? I’m right there with you (although it doesn’t feel like there are millions who believe as I do), except I don’t have to worry about explaining this stuff to children. It sounds like you are doing a great job of this with Nikki.

    And I don’t think you are going to hell…but if you do, I guess I’ll see you there!

  16. Bravo! I agree with everyone else — you’ve done some great explaining (and I my thinking is a lot like yours wrt religion in general).

    I think just as most religions seem to teach good and evil in “black and white” terms, kids also like to categorize things (people, ideas, etc.) in “black and white” terms. The concept of a “grey area” or continuum of evil > > neutral > > good, or of different people or belief systems having different priorities is much more esoteric, more advanced (imo). But keep trying, because ultimately that philosophy will serve one better in this complex world.

  17. Zoot, you rock. I am a Christian, and I see you teaching your children the true meaning of Christ – LOVE and TOLERANCE. Keep it up!

  18. Thanks! That’s another message I’m trying my best to relate: Don’t judge an entire religion on a few people. Learn about the teachings and listen to your heart. Even my Dad said that there were things he didn’t agree with in the Catholic Church, but as a whole it was the religion for him. You just have to know what’s right for YOU…and I hope she finds that some day.

  19. Yeah that’s my main concern…teaching him that beliefs aren’t always black and white. Oh, and on another but kind of similar note…just the other day my 4-year-old said “Only girls wear makeup” and I *silently* freaked out. I told him that while girls DO wear makeup like Mama does, it’s ok if boys choose to wear makeup when they are older, too, and there is nothing wrong with it. (My best friend is gay and he wears eyeliner)

  20. Long-time reader, first time commenter here. I studied World Religion in grad school and I love the way you are handling these conversations. You might find this book helpful:

    I LOVE it and bought it for my own niece. It fairly accurately portrays a wide range of religions in a way that helps kids to make sense of it all at their own level. Awesome photographs too!

  21. I’m definitely not looking forward to this subject coming up. My son is still young, but we are already trying to figure out how we’re going to explain religion to him, since we are atheists but our families are religious. Thanks so much for your post.

  22. I think you did great, Kim. I tell my kids similar things about religion, but with an important caveat: No one knows what is true about god and what happens after we die. A lot of people have ideas, but no one really knows. The only way to know is to die. And, we are not ready for that yet, because life is more important right now. So, we wonder. We ALL wonder.

  23. Just to echo everyone else – it sounds like you handled this difficult topic VERY well. I have the same fears for my babe; I wasn’t raised Catholic, but VERY Evangelical, and I would have been one of the ones telling NikkiZ that her mommy was going to H-E-L-L. Yeah, I sucked. BUT, I’ve changed, and I want to give my kids every chance to explore his own idea of religion and spirituality without tainting it one way or the other. Luckily, my husband did not grow up religious at all, so I think we’ll be well balanced.

  24. I am Christian as well and think you are handling this well. I took World Religions last year and if I can find the book we had in class I will give you the site – it was very good! I finally found a church that was right for me, that showed love no matter who you are – speaking of with me, my kids. There are two ladies in this church that every week rotate to watch my son Ryan who as you probably know is deaf and autistic. And this is a church of only about 50 people! As your daughter (and sons) learn about different religions I am sure they will weigh each carefully and pick the right one (or none!) for them. Hugs.

  25. I think you did well!
    I have had many conversations trying to JUST explain our family. We have traditional jews, we have orthodox jews, we have atheists, we have agonists, we have christians, we have pentecostals. It’s confusing, even for me!

  26. I’m taking notes for when this issue comes up with my kid! I think you’ve handled it incredibly well so far. That’s pretty much EXACTLY how I hope I’ll be able to explain things to him.

  27. I commend you for your openness. Being Catholic, I have only ever been in one non-catholic church in my 46 years. I am totally brainwashed, errr whatever you call it. Well, wait does Scientology have a real church? ‘cuz I dipped in that pool.

    This is not something I can teach from example to my nephew, as a young kid, I thought Frank Sinatra was the Pope. I have tried to teach him that we came from God but other than that, I am really unsure of what should go next. I don’t want him thinking like me, I am a pick and choose Catholic. Both parents asked me to explain God to him, and this is something I have decided to pass on. That is until you do it first …lol

  28. I think you handled it wonderfully and it’s a very tough subject.

    I come from a non-religious family and have lived here all of my life. I will say that growing up without religion in this area is *tough*. Honestly, I have no clue how we’re going to handle this one ourselves, but I personally know how isolating it is to be the non-religious kid. I did go to a rural school though, so I was exposed to a less diverse group of people. Huntsville is wonderful for its diversity, but you don’t have to step very far outside the city limits to be in the stereotypical Bible Belt (which is no news flash to you, I know).

    I think people are suspicious of those without religion. We know to respect one another’s religions and their beliefs, but we don’t really know how to respect a lack of religion and belief. I’m sure some parents teach their children to respect that, but a lot of them are taught that not believing is wrong, and carries dire consequences, and those non-believers just need to see the light. The kids have good intentions, but it’s hard to be the kid on the receiving end of the “help.” Sometimes it was easier to just lie and say I was such-and-such religion, because then I was “ok” and I would be left alone. It was like we might not share beliefs, but at least I believed in something and that was worthy of respect.

    I could talk about this stuff all day, and wish I was comfortable enough to blog about it. If you ever need to chat, just email me.

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