Dealing with the God Question

Secular humanistic parents and educators face unique challenges in speaking to kids about God.

Reprinted from Humanistic Judaism with permission from the Society for Humanistic Judaism.

One of the challenges in Humanistic Jewish education is answering students’ questions concerning the concept, figure, and importance of God. These are challenging issues for adults to address; to translate our answers into a child’s language and conceptual ability is that much more difficult. But every member of Humanistic Judaism, even the youngest, has the right to understand our shared values and beliefs.

The best advice I can offer is to be honest (one of our basic principles), to affirm even the most challenging questions, and to be as clear as possible.

Avoid such condescending answers as "Weak people need a belief in the supernatural" or "We’ve evolved past that primitive stage," and try to address the question in a clear and respectful way.

This list of six frequently asked questions about God is intended to help teachers and parents. Two concise answers are offered to each question–one aimed at children under 7, the other at children between 8 and 12.

Some of the answers, particularly for younger children, are similar. Many children learn better by repetition of the same or similar concepts. And it’s useful for parents and teachers to realize that the same answer can answer multiple problems.

Clearly, just as the questions may be asked in several forms, the answers should be adjusted to specific situations. For example, a particular family might have chosen a Humanistic community as a compromise between two religious perspectives, or one partner might be religious while the other is not. The more these answers are expressed in a parent’s or teacher’s own words, the more convincing they will be.

"Do I/we believe in God?"

For children up to age 7: I prefer to say, "I believe in you." I can see you, touch you, hear you, and care for you. I don’t know whether the idea of God is just an idea in our minds, or something real. Remember that it’s okay to say "I don’t know" if you really don’t know something. But I do know that if I help you, you’re happy, and if you help me, I’m happy. So let’s look at what we know, and see if that’s enough for us.

For children ages 8-12: We don’t know whether or not there is a God, so we prefer to focus on what we do know. We know that being good to other people is good for them and good for us, and we know we can learn about the world from our experience and from other people. We don’t know whether a God answers prayers, so we need to work to make the world better so that we know it’s getting better. Some people believe there is a God, and some people believe there is no God. We choose to focus on what we can do in the meantime.

"Should I pray? What do I say if other kids ask me what I pray for?"

For children up to age 7: Praying is another way of saying "I hope" something happens–I hope my mommy comes home soon, I hope everyone gets along. Sometimes, though, hope isn’t enough–if I just "hope" I get what I want, I can’t be sure it will happen. Sometimes we need to work to make our hopes become real. I hope and work for good things for my family.

For children ages 8-12: Praying is like wishing or hoping for something. The difference is that prayer usually asks someone or something (God) to make it happen. But just like wishing and hoping, prayer can’t make sure that we get the good thing we’re looking for. Thinking something in your brain doesn’t change the real world. On the other hand, when we work to make our hopes into reality, we know we’re making change. If other kids ask you about praying, you can tell them, "I hope and I work for good things in the world."

"So-and-so told me we can’t be Jewish if we don’t believe in God."

For children up to age 7: Being Jewish means that you are part of the Jewish family. Your mom is still your mom and your grandpa is still your grandpa even if you have different ideas. What are some of the things that we do that are Jewish? (Mention holidays, congregational activities, songs, names, foods.) You see? Being Jewish is not what you think, but who you are and what you do. You can be happy to be a proud member of the Jewish family.

For children ages 8-12: Being Jewish is like being part of a family. Just like your family has family traditions, favorite family foods, and family jokes, or your school has a school mascot and school colors, the Jewish family has Jewish food, Jewish jokes, and Jewish traditions. All of these add up to what we call culture. You can be part of Jewish culture in a lot of ways. Some of them involve the idea of God, and some focus instead on the Jewish people and what they’ve done and made. Being Jewish is not what you think, but who you are and what you do.

"So-and-so told me we’re not good people because we don’t believe in God."

For children up to age 7: Being a good person is about doing good things. You can do good things because you believe that a god told you to, or you can do good things because you want to help other people. We do good things all the time (recall an example), and we didn’t have to talk about God to do them. What you do makes you a good person, so if you do good things, you are a good person.

For children ages 8-12: What makes you a good person–what you think or what you do? I think it’s what you do. I know people who believe in God who are nice and some who are mean. And I know people who don’t believe in God who are nice and some who are mean. If you care about other people, and you work to help them, you’re a good person.

"My grandparents/neighbors/kids at school said my family is going to Hell because we don’t believe in God/Jesus."

For children up to age 7: Lots of people believe lots of different things. It’s okay to believe something different from someone else–they believe one thing, and we believe something different. And you don’t have to worry about what happens a long time from now–it’s more important to pay attention to what we do today and tomorrow. You have a family that loves you and that takes care of you today. Be a good person today and tomorrow–that’s plenty!

For children ages 8-12: Some people think that they are right all the time. They are sure they know exactly what happens after we die and exactly what we have to do now. We prefer to let all people make up their own minds about what might happen in the future or how to live life now. What we do know is that it’s very important to be a good person in this life, because it’s the only life we know is real. Don’t worry about what happens in the distant future–what can we do today?

"Why do so many other people/Jews pray to and believe in God, and we don’t?"

For children up to age 7: Lots of people believe lots of different things. It’s okay to believe something different from someone else. We know that we can help each other and make each other happy, and that’s enough for us. We can say "I don’t know" when we really don’t know; and using what we do know, we can do a lot of good things in the world. We believe in people, and that’s enough for us.

Discover More

Parashat Vaetchanan: Prayer and Pleading 

Life is not simple, and prayer is more than just pleading.

Kiddushin 30

Teach your children (and grandchildren) well.