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.