Take a look:
She’s unbelievably cute. And delightful. I mean that sincerely. I have two young daughters, now 8 and 10, so I’ve long been around a surfeit of off-the-scale adorableness. It never gets old.
So, yes, this lovely, lively little girl retelling the story of Jonah — it’s absolutely wonderful.
Except for the fact that she’s not recounting some yarn about Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. We may assume that among the adults who taught her this fairy tale, there’s no shared understanding that she’ll grow out of it. They won’t have a good collective laugh about it, including her, when she reaches age 11 or 12 and realizes that everyone played a good-natured joke on her. Because to them, this is no laughing matter, and no flight of fancy. They neither expect nor want her to cast aside the tale (and the book it came from) when she matures. On the contrary. The people who teach their brood these stories will maintain that the tales are true — literally or metaphorically — because the source is their favorite holy book. And they want their kids to sign on to that … forever.
Though I could be wrong, I’d wager that most of these parents will have scarcely given a thought to the extreme improbability of a man living inside a whale’s belly for three days before being vomited, intact, onto dry land.
Speaking of waterworld adventures, what of Noah’s story? I doubt that most Christians will readily reflect on the extremely remote possibility that Noah’s home-built ark was able to accommodate the untold thousands or even millions of species. In neat boy-girl pairs, no less. Likewise, most prayerful parents will probably dismiss skeptics who point out that animals like sloths and penguins, who can’t travel very well, couldn’t have made it to Noah’s place, thousands of miles from the creatures’ habitats. Et cetera.
Reason and open inquiry are, after all, often anathema1 to true faith.
At the risk of being a buzzkill, I ought to point out there are two vital differences between telling kids a fanciful Easter Bunny-type story, and indoctrinating them with the pretty and not-so-pretty stories from a holy book.
Firstly, I reiterate that the children of the faithful are expected to believe in, and live by, the latter — for life.
And secondly, there are serious social and psychological consequences if they don’t. The likelihood of ostracism, for one. The fear of causing deep parental disappointment, and of losing their moms’ and dads’ love and esteem, for another.
Even if you believe that the Bible isn’t literally true on every single page, I can’t say I understand why you would subject children to ‘sacred’ fairy tales and insist that they must ultimately believe in them until they die.
By extension, I don’t quite get why we wouldn’t simply let children make up their own minds, in due time, when they’re old enough to think for themselves.2
Meanwhile — sure, let them see how you live your faith. But also tell them about other religions, and about other creation stories — and about the fact that a billion people on this planet think that there are no gods at all.
Why wouldn’t you? Is it because forcing dogma on a five-year-old is easy as pie, and forcing dogma on a 20-year-old has every chance of failing?
The Oatmeal illustrates the point:
1I use the word advisedly. Anathema was originally used as a term for exile from the church, but evolved to mean set apart, banished, or denounced.
2This is what my wife and I do with our kids. They know that Mom’s a Christian and Dad’s an atheist, and we discuss it with them — when it comes up organically. But we also allow them to graze from other religions and world views. They’ve been to United Church of Christ summer camps and to friends’ Hannukah celebrations. They’re encouraged to learn about other faiths. We don’t tell them what to think. They’re smart, and kind, and they’ll figure out this religion stuff eventually.