“Sorry, Honey . . .”

Athena Captures a Centaur (Botticelli)“Sorry, honey, God’s just pretend,” I said once to a child of mine.

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”?

Should I?

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.


    1. Thank YOU. Now please come up with a provisional title for my memoir. It was going to be “Sorry, Honey, God’s Just Pretend” but apparently that puts off even nonbelievers. And I won’t have the luxury of explaining myself unless someone actually reads the book.

    1. The “sorry” was in response to a desire on my child’s part–as I vaguely recall–to have the whole thing make sense. It might be comforting to be part of a grand scheme, but . . . sorry.

      1. Oh, but we are part of a grand scheme! We are born, we live, we die. That’s it! So whatever we DO while we are alive, THAT is our own ‘grand scheme” – it’s up to US! How is that not comforting?? I really like your writing and your attitude and your humor, I’m not trying to find fault or argue – I support you wholeheartedly!

  1. I immediately thought that this would be the perfect title for your book, so I say, go ahead! It will get people’s attention, and that is good. Provocative gets press. Press boosts sales. And people of delicate sensibility won’t be able to say they weren’t warned!

    On a more personal note, this post was just what I needed to read today as I struggled with whether or how to comment on a religious friend’s Facebook post that really bugged me, which is why I’m commenting here and not there. So, thank you for speaking up so eloquently for all of us whose cojones are smaller than yours are!

    1. Caitlin, I am brave only in writing. It’s the only place where my desire to be honest, clear, and intelligent trumps my desire to be liked! Except, I guess, with my kids. I don’t seem to need them to like me–at least not every moment.

  2. Kate- I really enjoy your whimsical yet frank writing and your thoughtful ideas; thank you for sharing them! Your blog posts often resonate with me emotionally and give me food for thought even though I have a very different view of God than you.

    In this case, I believe you are mistaken in that the belief in God is not just emotionally and culturally different than the belief in Santa Claus, but the logic behind it is fundamentally different as well. Entities such as Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy, etc. never claimed to be real. Their creation was passive; people made them up. But according to the Israelites of history, God spoke to them and said that he is The Lord their God. He himself claimed to be God. And around 27 A.D. Jesus comes along and claims to be God as well. You can obviously disbelieve what they said, but my point is just that the claims of God’s “God-ness” were made by an entity who declared himself to be God, as opposed third parties who obviously didn’t mean for these entities to be taken as real. No one claims that St. Nick declared that he was Santa Claus, or the Easter bunny said anything about his identity at all…

    1. Kirstie! Thank you so much for reading and responding. (We miss you!)

      Two things. (1) I purposely did not choose for my examples characters that people actively–consciously–create: Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy. We know there’s no real Santa, because we are the ones who falsify the evidence of his existence. We can easily prove he doesn’t exist by refraining from putting presents under the tree. So it’s a different thing to say with confidence “Santa does not exist” than to say “God does not exist”. In that I agree with you . . . and that’s why I used other examples. But (2) the fact that OTHER people (Israelites) said something exists (or, more precisely, some people said that other people said . . .) doesn’t make it more true, does it? I don’t think so. I mean there are a lot of holy books and a lot of other people out there claiming divinity–but you don’t believe all of them, right?

  3. Kate. I like your response to Kristie who is stuck in the most common trap, that of blind faith in biblical claims that it is “the word of God,” and that God spoke to people in the good old old Testament days. Have you ever noticed that nowadays, those who claim to be spoken to by God are usually regarded as kooks. Not the least reason for which is the fact that God always tells them EXACTLY WHAT THEY, Themselves, THINK. He is surely an agreeable sort. Or perhaps a big joker.
    Or the other even bigger boo-boo, that Jesus claimed to be divine. In fact, it is well established that he was a Zealot (which means a revolutionary,) claimed no divinity and was executed not to save souls, but for fomenting revolt against the corrupt Jewish priesthood and the Roman occupation of Judea. Like many others before and some after him. Who were all crucified like thousands of others regarded as criminals by Rome. The Gospels are less history than propaganda. If you have not yet, you may want to read and to refer your readers to the book “Zealot -the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan. Even a devout believer, confronted with such solid historical and anthropological fact may experience some serious doubt after reading it. Your pointing out that there are a lot of other “holy” texts and religious mythologies besides the Bible, and that Christians find it easy to see the absurdity in these, but not that in the Bible (because they were brainwashed to believe it as the source of “true” faith) should make it crystal clear that the mythology (as opposed to the ethics, philosophy, etc) of the Judao-Christian tradition is only one of many mythologies that have been regarded by believers as “the truth.” Proving, of course, that none is true.

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