Which child and when—those details have left my head. But the sentence stuck. I liked how it both stated a fact and expressed a wistfulness about that fact. No one is in charge, but life might be easier if Someone were.
Last week, writing to a friend who was advising me on a book pitch, I said it again. I hoped (I wrote) that my memoir about raising atheists would give nonbelieving parents the encouragement they might need to say to their children, “Sorry, honey, God’s just pretend.”
Writing back, my friend suggested that I add, “I think.” As in, “Sorry, honey, I think God’s just pretend.” My “claim to know the unknowable” made her uncomfortable. I don’t have proof that God does not exist. Should I really state as an absolute truth, as she put it, “that which we cannot know”?
Consider the following:
“Mom, are monsters real?”
“Well, honey, some people think they’re real, but your dad and I believe that monsters are just pretend. When you get older, you can decide for yourself what you believe.”
This, of course, would never happen. On the contrary, it would be perfectly acceptable—even predictable—to say, “Don’t worry, honey, monsters are just pretend.” And it works if you’re not reassuring a child, as well; no one would raise an eyebrow at “Sorry, honey, Athena is just pretend” or “Sorry, honey, fairies are just pretend.”
So we can assert the nonexistence of things for which there is no evidence. Even if we have no absolute proof that they do not exist.
Monsters and fairies and Greek gods may seem like frivolous examples, in no way equivalent to God. But they are logically equivalent. They just aren’t culturally equivalent. Most grownups (today) don’t believe in Mount Olympus or fairies or monsters; to state that they don’t exist is to state the “obvious.” And (to state the obvious) the same is not true when it comes to God.
More to the point, they are not emotionally equivalent. People who believe in God usually care whether He is real. Sometimes they care a lot. To dismiss unapologetically something that someone else cares about is just . . . rude. I suspect that the whiff of the impolite—or at least the impolitic—is partly what made my friend wrinkle her nose.
I don’t want to be rude. Which is why I would never say, “Sorry, honey, God’s just pretend” to a niece at her bat mitzvah or to an athlete in a post-game interview.
But to my kids, who are trying to figure out what to believe? Absolutely.