I overheard a conversation between a wildly religious grandmother and my sister-in-law a few days ago that I found somewhat alarming. They were discussing how the kids had a habit of getting into everything they could reach. My sister-in-law said she tried using child gates like a checkpoint system throughout the house to keep my nephew contained. The grandmother then said that her granddaughter had a habit of climbing the sink and going through her medicine cabinet. She sat her down and explained that if she ate the pills she would go to heaven.
No explanation of death, which most 5-year olds can grasp at some level, or an explanation of permanent consequences. She didn’t attempt to explain that she would go away forever and her family would be sad. She just instilled in this girl the idea that the pills will send her to heaven.
Think about this for a minute. Religious people are constantly telling children that heaven is a great thing. Love Jesus so you can go to heaven; be good so you can go to heaven; grandpa went to heaven and someday you’ll see him again – and so on. They do their best to make heaven out to be a wonderful, fun, happy place that you should want to go to. Then you tell your impressionable granddaughter that your pills will send her to heaven?! Are you kidding me? That isn’t a danger warning, it’s an incentive!
Not all religious parents are quite as oblivious as this woman. I’ve written about her on this blog before. She gives me a constant supply of crazy to talk about. Her number one fear in life is that her granddaughter will become a full-fledged, practicing witch – magic powers and all. Her ridiculous (and potentially dangerous) anecdote made me think about the effect lying has on children.
I vividly remember the day I learned Santa Claus was a lie. I was 7 years old and my best friend was an asshole. Seriously, this kid was a little shit. He stole my mom’s watch and rubbed it in my face at school the next day. We got in a fight, I won, and as a parting shot, he told me Santa didn’t really exist.
I returned home, watch in hand, minus one shitty friend. I asked my mom point-blank if Santa was real. She exchanged a look with my dad and I knew instantly I had been lied to. It stung. Naturally, I began to realize Santa wasn’t alone in the realm of mythical beings. One at a time, I asked about the others – Tooth Fairy: LIE, Easter Bunny: LIE, Ninja Turtles: LIE, Jesus: Oh no, of course he’s real. Gotta keep at least one lie going. The fact that my 7-year old self automatically lumped Jesus in with Santa should have told my adult self something.
Santa wasn’t the only thing my parents lied to me about. They lied when the truth was uncomfortable or inconvenient. They lied to protect me and to control my behavior. They lied to me about God, but I can’t hold that one against them. They were lied to themselves and truly believed the untruths they passed on to my brother and me. Some lies are innocent, but I’d argue that some are harmful. When children finally learn the truth, it erodes trust and makes them feel betrayed.
My main complaint about the religious lies is the fact that it inhibits a child’s ability to think critically. They are taught what to think, rather than how to think, and this can affect them well into adulthood. When you tell a child that invisible gods, talking donkeys, talking snakes, virgin births, angels, Noah’s ark, dragons, heaven, hell, and the living dead are historical facts, you slowly remove their credulity and skepticism. You make them easy to fool. You disarm them and send them out into the world with a handicap.
Try being honest with the children in your life. If they ask a hard question, treat them with respect and attempt to answer in a way they can understand. Teach your kids to evaluate evidence, think critically, and be skeptical of dubious claims. If more parents were committed to raising intelligent freethinkers, the world would be a better place.