When our kids were in kindergarten, one of the moms from their class approached me on the playground one day for some “religious” advice about how to deal with what was for her son, the traumatic discovery that everybody dies (this discovery came via the film Charlotte’s Web). I fumbled and mumbled my way through some explanation of how we try to teach our kids that God is ultimately going to reclaim and redeem the world of our present experience, validating all that is good and true, and that the Christian conviction is that death is not the end.
My response may or may not have been adequate, but the playground conversation got me thinking about children’s need to make sense of the world and the problem of death. It reminded of some of the questions that arose when our kids encountered death for the first time. One of their preschool friends was tragically killed in a traffic accident a few years ago, and I remember being surprised by their bewilderment—even outrage—that such a thing as death should occur.
Since then, I’ve wondered about what (if anything) this intuitive child-like sense of the lack of fit between death and the world says about us as human beings. It seems to me that there are, broadly speaking, two approaches one can take to the problem of death and what, if anything, this might say about us and the world. For me, two books illustrate these approaches well.
The first is articulated by the famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his best-seller The God Delusion. For Dawkins, religious belief in general, and certainly any belief that there is a reality beyond death, is a “mind-virus” which involuntarily infects people through the cultural transmission of “memes.” Dawkins admits that children seem to be hard-wired to be, if not religious, then at least inclined toward a form of dualism which accepts the existence of non-physical entities and realities, however these beliefs do not point to anything real about the world; rather, they indicate that such beliefs must have provided some adaptive value in our distant evolutionary past. Dawkins is clear that the beliefs that seem to come naturally to children—tooth fairies, Santa Claus, flying spaghetti monsters, heaven, God—represent a stage in human development to be grown out of.
Another perspective on what the natural inclinations of children might point to is set forth in Susan Neiman’s Evil in Modern Thought. Neiman, a moral philosopher who directs the Einstein Forum in Postdam, Germany, takes a position quite different from Dawkins. For her, the questions that come naturally to children are more plausibly interpreted as pointing to real existential problems and needs. Neiman argues that the “childish” desire that every question—including the question of what comes after death—ought to have a sufficient answer is at the heart of reason itself:
Children display it more often than adults because they have been disappointed less often. They will continue to ask questions even after hearing the impatient answer—because that’s the way the world is. Most children remain adamant. But why is the world like that, exactly? The only answer that will truly satisfy is this one: Because it’s the best one. We stop asking when everything is as it should be… In the child’s refusal to accept a world that makes no sense lies all the hope that ever makes us start anew.
There is obviously a striking contrast between the views represented by Dawkins and Neiman regarding the significance of children’s intuitions. The former sees childish tendencies as something to be outgrown (although, interestingly, mainly those that tend towards belief in God or religion—Dawkins obviously wishes to encourage children to ask questions, just not to arrive at the “wrong” conclusions). The latter sees the “childish” demand that the world conform to intuitive senses of justice, meaning, and goodness as being at the very heart of reason itself, and providing the impetus that drives philosophy:
But the child may also be a figure of promise. She approaches the world in wonder as well as in fear. Her innocence can be a source of strength… The urge to greet every answer with another question is one we find in children not because it’s childish but because it’s natural.
When I think of a little boy’s virtual outrage that there should be such a thing as death (in Charlotte’s Web or anywhere else), and our own kids’ reaction to the death of their friend (Why? But we’ll see him again, right?), I think we ought to at least entertain the possibility that these questions and concerns might actually make contact with what is real and true about the world, and reflect some element of what they were created to be. Perhaps there are some questions and some possibilities that we are not meant to outgrow.
I totally disagree with these philosophers…but am intrigued by your post!! Let me explain….
I do not believe that just because children act negatively to death means much of anything…I mean have you ever seen a child act negatively towards a nap? Let alone the idea of leaving playtime forever!!! And if that doesn’t make sense to you try to humor this idea. If God really let us comprehend the grandeur of heaven versus the hell of this life do you really think that any of us would want to be here? I think it is possible that our will to live was given to us by God who did us a favor!!! If I had to stay in a 0 star hotel for a period of time I wouldn’t want a constant reminder of the 5 star hotel that I left and didn’t have directions to get back to.
The other intriguing part of your post is this….if I humor the idea that children somehow have a “natural” response to reject death therefore the truth of life after death may not exist. Then how do you explain man’s “natural” response to believe in a higher power? According to the Washington Post in 2008 nearly 92% of Americans (including atheists) believe in God, a higher power, or universal spirit.
I think the bottom line is children are pleasure seekers, period!! They do not have the ability to rationalize as adults do (science proves this in the development of the frontal lobe if you are not willing to take my word for it). I’m not saying that we don’t have ANY natural born “instincts” if you will, but I am saying that this is certainly not a good argument that God or heaven does not or may not exist.
First of all, the post is not an “argument” that God or heaven exists. It is a reflection upon a feature of human experience, and what this experience may or may not suggest, what possibilities it may or may not point toward. I am well aware that children’s resistance to death does not “prove” anything, just as I am well aware that children’s brain structures are in formation, and that they do not rationalize in the same ways that adults do (they often do a better job).
Second, though, I would challenge your statement that children are “pleasure seekers, period!” I don’t think you’re giving children enough credit. Jesus seemed to think quite highly of the capacity of children, after all—he seemed to think that they had an ability to grasp the nature of God’s work in the world in a way that adults often could not. And even if what Jesus thought about the matter is not deemed relevant, I have observed children behave in ways that show that personal pleasure is not the primary motivation. I have seen frequently observed genuinely selfless behaviour from children. And I have consistently experienced what the philosopher I referred to in the post, Susan Nieman, says about children needing to understand the world in terms that make moral sense to them.
Finally, I would simply say that perhaps my post here amounts to little more than an extended reflection upon what “the image of God” in humanity might look like. I do believe that God has “hard-wired” human beings to long for certain things, to expect certain things, to notice the absence of certain things, and to be motivated by certain things. Of course, not every desire or longing or expectation points to the existence of its fulfillment. But my experience as a father and my observation of the questions children come up with leads me to believe that they possess an intuitive (God-given, I think) sense of justice and a built-in hope that this world is not all there is.
Thank you for your post, Ryan. I am new to this blog and really appreciated your reflection. I have a verbally advanced 4-year-old that began to ask tough theological and moral questions when he was barely 3. He was, and still is, very disturbed by death, violence, and things that are broken or lost. I certainly feel that his sense of justice and his sorrow about death (even the death of insects or “virtual” death in stories) points to a greater truth about a desire to see things made whole. It is difficult for me to answer him in a comforting way as I still have many questions myself and frequently feel an overwhelming sadness at the state of our world. My great,sometimes tentative hope, is that in some mysterious way God is and will bring Shalom.
At this point, I am not trying to criticize but I am just musing “outloud”. Do all children innately possess the characteristics that you refer to in your post? Many children that I have seen, including children of church families, revel in violence and imitate death in their play with no apparent disturbance. Does God through his spirit give a greater sensitivity about a broken world to some and than to others? Or maybe, through exposure to violence and death, children lose their “intuitive senses of justice, meaning, and goodness” that they possessed when they were born? In fact, “an average American child will see 200,000 violent acts and 16,000 murders on TV by age 18 and according to many studies exposure to violence on TV is related to a decrease in empathy. These statistic have probably increased with the advent and frequency of virtual games (Xbox, Wii, Apps, etc). This is something to consider as we are raising and nurturing our own children.
Statistics from the University of Michigan Health Systems’ information page on “Television and Children.”
Thanks for your comment, Elizabeth. Re: whether or not all children possess innate conceptions of or longings for eternity, I would say that, like all capacities that human beings are born with, these kinds of things can either be nurtured or snuffed out through choices we make or through circumstances that happen to us. So, if kids are exposed to violence and death (real or virtual), these things will be come less “unnatural” for them over time—they will become desensitized, just like so many adults.
I’m not sure if we can completely lose our sense of goodness, justice, and meaning, but there is much in our culture that seems determined to do what it can to extinguish them. It can be difficult to raise children to value and embody what we feel are the most important features of being human when so much of what we see around us, so much of what passes for entertainment, so much of what our culture (implicitly or explicitly) values, seems to push against this.
I guess we need to define “child” because different age groups act different ways. I have two very young children and have dealt largely in part with the mind of a 2 year old. But besides all of that, I did take your post very differently the first time that I read it than I am now, so I can see your points and I too learn so much from my children. I agree with your conclusion “But my experience as a father and my observation of the questions children come up with leads me to believe that they possess an intuitive (God-given, I think) sense of justice and a built-in hope that this world is not all there is.”