The Battle for Zachary’s Brain V: Tears on His Pillow; The Consequences of Unbelief

“Do you know that many people believe in God?

They think God made the world and runs the universe.

Some people grow up and learn that God is JUST PRETEND like Santa.

But some people still believe God is real. . .

Some people believe in a god who gives rewards to favorite people.

They imagine a place called Heaven with gold and crowns and music and no pain or work.

Some people believe in a god who burns people who are bad.

They imagine a place called Hell with fire and pain and screams.

They think God hates people who don’t think the same way as they do.

Some people think God is a Christian.

Some people think God is a Moslem.

Or a Jew.

Or a Catholic.

Or a Baptist.

The way people think about God is called religion.

There are thousands of different religions.

If you think about it, they can’t all be right.

Somebody must be wrong.

Maybe they are all wrong!”


Dan Barker, “Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children”

Followers of the riveting “Zachary’s Brain” series of posts will recall that this is not a sci-fi/horror movie but a real-life account of the sharply conflicting world-views to which my stepson, the eponymous seven-year-old, is, sadly, subjected.

It is monumentally unfair to subject Zach to unilateral and unquestionable religious programming, which necessitates counter-measures by his staunchly atheistic mom and step-dad.

His father, of strong Italian background, was a lapsed Catholic who once refused communion because he had “problems with the Catholic Church.”   I think it was about the child-molesting priests.  He joined his then-wife in mocking the Pope.

Going with the program

His new wife follows some generic Christian denomination, so he goes with the program.  Even teaches a Bible class!

I don’t judge.  For 27 years, I put up with a wife’s weird combination of soft atheism, Humanistic Judaism, and New Age beliefs (and medicine).  Enough unreason that it was like a religion, though a benign one.

Zach’s religious education is ramping up.  We have to respond.  We are enlisting Zach – and thus everyone he influences the rest of his life (religions are no doubt aware of this multiplier effect) – in the cause of science and reason.  We simply urged him to use his mind to find the truth and that we would never lie to him.

Tears on his pillow

Last night I went down to say goodnight and found an emotionally difficult scene, with Zach’s head buried in his pillow.  He was crying.  At what, I can only guess.  He is a sensitive child.   His mom had been reading from Just Pretend, a skepticism-for-kids book.  We have others, e.g., What About Gods? (Chris Brockman)  and Maybe Yes, Maybe No (Barker).

We also give him a rich environment of science (he likes geology) and math knowledge, and he is increasingly coming to understand the explanatory power of science.  At school, he’s looking forward to learning more about evolution.

Why the tears?

Maybe he was facing the enormity of the conclusion that had recently urged itself on his young mind: God does not pass the basic test of evidence and must therefore be assumed not to exist.  Sometime, recently, he decided that he didn’t believe any of it. 

This was frightening – it stoked his fears of abandonment. 

It’s primitive: being in the group means sharing the groupthink, which Zach is finding impossible.  Not to share the groupthink is to court abandonment.

This – or at least the threat of it -- happens in real life.  The child of one of my wife’s oh-so-Jewish sisters saw my wife’s then-husband wearing a cross and asked Mom why.  Upon hearing it was because he was a Christian, he asked if he could be one (maybe it was some kind of club) – and was promptly and in no uncertain terms told that if he did that, he would have no family and no place to live.

Wow.  Point made.  Forever.

Nobody’s about to ostracize Zach, but he still faces the problem of what to do with the newly dawning realization.  So maybe he had another reason for tears: that if he truly did not believe, there were consequences. 

His mom tried to give him strategies (which she had employed) for enjoying religious events for their fun value and for meeting other kids, that pretending to believe was a viable short-term strategy.  Maybe Zach was realizing how much play-acting he would have to do. 

Damn.   B.F. Skinner observed that “Society attacks early, when the child is defenseless.”  It’s unconscionable that religion foists these fantasies on kids.

Learning and questioning

Even now he understands the difference between learning in school and in church: in school, you learn by asking questions if you don’t understand, but in church, learning means NOT asking questions.  That’s what he said. 

Not only was he crying, he was hiding.  I had to peel back two layers of  blankets to give him his kiss. 

Kids are so literal.  Hiding from the burden of unbelief, especially when you depend on believers for your sustenance.   His older brother, a total atheist who ignores church and all things religious – and had been that way since long before the Christian 2nd wife appeared -- gets a pass.  But clearly they have hope of indoctrinating Zachary.

Flashes of insight

Despite his immaturity, Zach shows surprising flashes of insight.  He actually used the word “philosophize,” which he defined as “giving your opinion.”  Not too far off for age seven.  The point is, he thinks about how we know things.   He distinguishes fact from opinion, experience from hearsay.

Seven seems like such a critical age.  The child gets serious about structuring his/her cognitive world.  Right around this time, religions try to populate it with all manner of deities, demigods, spirits, ghosts, and other superstitions.  “Truth” begins to have some meaning, as does the similarity between “invisible” and “imaginary” when applied to the supernatural. 

At age seven, the child’s mind is developed enough to understand the difference between science and religion – one thrives on questions; the other forbids them.

A small but courageous unbeliever

Zach’s mom insisted on turning the mood around with Mad-Libs, and Zach went to sleep happy and was much more sanguine the next day.  He was matter-of-fact about not believing any of it.

Now comes the hard part.  Church activities are claiming more and more time.  He’s with us only every other weekend. 

We are not worried about it becoming a custody issue, although that is not unheard of, and matters seem to go against atheists. 

What is most painful of all is having to watch him go through this.  Every atheist has to deal with the consequences of unbelief, which depend on one’s religious environment and the age at which freedom from religion is first realized.   In my case, the environment was Judaism lite, secular and forgiving enough that I could simply walk away unscathed.  

The big question mark is: how will Zach’s stepmom (and his father, in step) react to the boy’s increasing disinterest in religion?   Will he at some point have to tell her he doesn’t buy any of it?

Stay tuned.  Future installments to come.

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